The fact-based Final Portrait takes place in 1964 during the final days of sculptor-painter Alberto Giacometti – famous, wealthy, accomplished and utterly unconvinced he's done anything worthwhile.
So discovers writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), who agrees to sit as a model for a portrait. How long will it take? Three hours, Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) assures him.
Of course, that's what they told the folks who ended up on Gilligan's Island, and Lord soon finds himself similarly stranded. It turns into a multi-week ordeal, during which Lord is required to remain motionless and silent as he witnesses the full scope of the artist's insecurities, jealousies, foibles, and flaws. The look on Lord's face, after a time, suggests he'd prefer the electric chair to the model's chair.
Writer-director Stanley Tucci uses the scenario to examine the often unpleasant artistic process. It becomes a showcase for former Oscar winner Rush, who transforms himself physically for the role — stooped and gnarled underneath an unruly mop of hair, a cigarette jutting like a threat from his grizzled face.
As he paints, he narrates his own insecurities, sets forth doubts about the merit of his own work, about the value of art in general. In sum, he doubts everything about art but the necessity of making it.
Rush has a lot to do, and is the kind of performer who can rise to that kind of challenge. Hammer is not so lucky. He is constrained by physical space, and by the dimensions of the script, which give all the action and good lines to Giacometti.
There are thankless scenes of Lord phoning the airline to change his reservation, or phoning New York to tell somebody he's been delayed, again. In one of these scenes, he appears to be wearing a silk bathrobe over a dress shirt. Was that ever a thing, even in Paris?
On the other hand, it's a rare splash of color in this monochromatic movie — the palette of Giacometti's studio, where Lord sits and sits and sits, runs from charcoal and chalk. Tucci tries to enliven things with vibrating, handheld shooting, but the movements make us no less claustrophobic. We are grateful when Lord and Giacometti head out into the streets.
Giacometti sometimes does this on his own, and we learn that he loves wine and prostitutes. Naturally these habits are not as popular with his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud), and in the movie's most interesting wrinkle, Lord fights an urge to intercede in the tumult of their marriage, and learns he was probably right to do so.
In the end, though, Final Portrait, does not reward our own commitment to sitting still. When the creatively blocked Giacometti stares at his canvas, cursing. He is literally watching paint dry, and so are we.