‘The Sympathizer’ Review: Robert Downey Jr. Dazzles and Distracts in HBO’s Adaptation of the Pulitzer-Winning Novel

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On September 15, Robert Downey Jr. will almost certainly take home his first Emmy as best supporting actor in a limited series for HBO‘s The Sympathizer.

It will be the latest coronation in a year of coronations for a star who is undisputedly one of our finest, and it will be difficult to begrudge; what Downey does in The Sympathizer hits that sweet spot between “ridiculously entertaining” and “a whole lot of acting” that award-givers love.

The Sympathizer

The Bottom Line

Downey’s a double-edged sword.

Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, April 14 (HBO)
Cast: Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Phanxine, Vy Le, Ky Duyen, Kieu Chinh, Duy Nguyen, Alan Trong, Sandra Oh and Robert Downey Jr.
Creators: Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, from the book by Viet Thanh Nguyen

But two things can be true: Downey’s performance in The Sympathizer can be saluted as a dexterous feat of actorly gymnastics. At the same time, it’s the misplaced fulcrum that too often causes this seven-episode adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to lose its tonal and narrative balance.

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This version of The Sympathizer is still substantive and audacious, a slab of satire and deeply felt human tragedy that’s worthy of conversation and consideration, even if the consideration leads to the conclusion that a kitchen-sink approach that worked on the page struggles to coalesce on the screen.

Created for HBO by Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave) and Don McKellar, The Sympathizer actually stars Hoa Xuande as the unnamed narrator known only as The Captain. The story is told through The Captain’s confession in a Vietnamese re-education camp. It’s several years after the end of the war, in which he served as aide-de-camp to a popular if largely ineffectual South Vietnamese General (Toan Le), while at the same time working as a double agent for the North Vietnamese.

The Captain’s confession takes us through the closing days of the Vietnam War and into Los Angeles’ Vietnamese exile community, from the tarmac on the eve of Saigon’s fall to the snooty halls of academia to the chaotic set of a Hollywood movie about the war.

It’s a story of dualities. The Captain is torn between sides of a biracial identity (his mother is Vietnamese, his father European) that have guaranteed his status as “other” no matter where he is — a “bastard” or “half-breed” in Vietnam and an enigmatic “Oriental” in the States. He’s a devoted Communist with a passionate appetite for American popular culture. He has two best friends — Man (Duy Nguyễn), his Northern handler in counterespionage, and Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), motivated by personal tragedies to be a fierce soldier for the South.

In a world in which everything around him exists in binary form, The Captain exists in the gray, shifting his recall of events depending on his audience and making us fully complicit in the subterfuge. His identity is entirely fungible, with no core ideology or personality remaining. He’s torn between homes, between flashbacks and the present, and, naturally, between women — the caustic Ms. Sofia Mori (a very funny Sandra Oh) and the tantalizing distraction of the General’s daughter, Lana (breakout newcomer Vy Le).

He is, by design, one of the most frustrating heroes you’ll ever encounter, and the series’ directors — Park, Fernando Meirelles and Marc Munden — capture the self-aware qualities of his storytelling with bits of meta cinematic grammar. He can rewind his tale like a VHS cassette, he acknowledges when he’s recounting pieces of the narrative that he wasn’t present for and the finale is such a pointed exploration of the challenges of finding closure that The Captain laments, “Why do I have this ominous feeling that the reviews are not going to be good?”

Oops. I haven’t mentioned Robert Downey Jr. in while, have I? (Cue the rewinding sound effect.) Downey, also an executive producer, plays five characters, including shady CIA agent Claude, crazed auteur Nikos and The Captain’s Asian-fetishizing grad school mentor Professor Hammer. On the page, they’re one-dimensional data points on The Captain’s picaresque odyssey, but here, under Downey’s disguised watch, they come together to create a Voltron of mediocre white men, united by their desire to exploit The Captain in various capacities, colonizing his identity like Europeans colonized his homeland.

Conceptually, it’s a stunt, achieved through comically inclined hair and makeup that scream, “Look, it’s Robert Downey Jr. AGAIN!” It’s also borderline brilliant insofar as it makes this parade of figures into a figment of Captain’s perspective, a knowing upending of “They all look alike to me” stereotyping. But the stunt becomes the story, and the satirical bent shifts from Catch-22 to Dr. Strangelove. It all leaves Xuande, doing some wonderfully subtle things to convey his understanding of a man who doesn’t know himself, too frequently upstaged by Downey’s wigs, latex accoutrements and vocal affectations, which sound, perhaps intentionally, like Richard Nixon through the years.

There’s more of those five characters in the miniseries than in the novel — or at least it feels like there’s more of them — resulting in less of The Captain and less of Bon and the General (Khan and Le are excellent as well). When the series pushes from roughly a 50/50 satire-to-drama ratio to more like 20/80 in the closing episodes, it feels like we didn’t get quite enough time with our conflicted hero.

Upstaging is always a danger in any story in which the main character is a reactive chameleon. Assimilation is The Captain’s superpower, until assimilation begins to destroy him, and Xuande captures that sense of invisibility perfectly. But the show around him is prone to overcompensating, just in case you don’t find The Captain fascinating.

When Park is behind the camera (for three episodes), the series is playfully askew in many of his trademark ways. The director has his own obsessions with duality, people hiding things from each other and from themselves, and he knows the power of odd camera positioning or cheeky bits of masked editing or colors that pop in unexpected ways. When other directors take over, the series is much less visually distinctive, much less inventive. At least the behind-the-scenes movie episode, helmed by Meirelles — the best-executed of the ambitious set pieces from Nguyen’s very cinematic novel — has a high volume of style, even if the overall approach and Downey’s presence make it into a darker, less hilarious Tropic Thunder companion piece.

And there’s nothing exactly wrong with that, nor with going more Dr. Strangelove than Catch-22. There was no episode of The Sympathizer that didn’t deliver a few laughs and a few gut-punches, but as the story moves toward its big climax and has to leave the Robert Downey Jr. costume party behind, the series it tries to resolve doesn’t always feel like the series it just spent six previous episodes trying to be. It’s an identity crisis that’s thematically appropriate, if not entirely satisfying to watch unfold.

 

‘The Sympathizer’ Review: Robert Downey Jr. Dazzles and Distracts in HBO’s Adaptation of the Pulitzer-Winning Novel

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