When someone behaves unprofessionally, you have two options. You can react unprofessionally in response, or you can take the high road, be the bigger man, rise above it, etc– we have a lot of ways to convey the same idea. Two wrongs, as we all learned in kindergarten, don’t make a right.
And yet, Whiplash seems to think they do. Or maybe it doesn’t, I’m not even sure. Based on the structure– a kid who wants to be great at something tries really hard and is spurred on by a hard-driving teacher– it seems like we’re supposed to feel for the kid. But Andrew (Miles Teller) doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities that make him worth rooting for, except for a sad kind of face and the idea that he really really wants it. which means something, right? (Answer: no)
There are two fundamental problems to Whiplash, on which all the other various incidental problems are based. The first is that the whole movie ends up feeling episodic without anything connecting the episodes. Neither Andrew nor his teacher (the inimitable J.K. Simmons) have any backstory, which is fine, we can just roll with the present. Let us fill in the relevant details on our own. But they also don’t have any lives outside of jazz music and jazz drumming, in a way that flattens the world and makes the sequences in it less believable rather than honing the focus to a laser point, as you imagine the movie thinks it’s done.
There are many, many sequences of Andrew practicing the drums, so many that in retrospect it feels like a montage, but not a single one is situated in time or space in a way that adds depth to the character. We don’t see him getting there early or leaving late. In fact, we don’t see him come or go at all, it’s just shot after shot of him drumming incessantly and trying really really hard. We don’t see his schedule and how this practice time factors in to it. Moreover, we don’t know any part of his schedule. He’s in school, why is he only in one class? Even a fancy performing arts program has more than a single band session a day. It’s not that time slips away, in a way that might suggest how much he’s worked, it’s that time doesn’t exist at all. Now he’s practicing. Now he’s in class. Now he’s practicing. Now he’s at a competition and the teacher references class “last month,” but we’ve seen nothing in between.
The other fundamental problem is that the student-teacher relationship the entire movie is built around is a lie. It’s abuse. It’s not even thinly veiled abuse, like “Oh yeah, that guy’s rough around the edges, but he really knows what say/do to make you succeed.” It’s just abuse, verbal and physical, with no payoff. There’s no carrot to go with the stick. There isn’t even the hint of a carrot. There are no redeeming features to Terence Fletcher. His deeper motivation for all the abuse is a desire to create “the next Charlie Parker” by pushing students beyond what’s expected of them, which is a normal enough goal for a teacher, but he’s unrepentant when reflecting on his abusive methodology. He knows he’s abusive and he continues to not care.
The whole movie is two people behaving amazingly unprofessionally at one another. Yes, it’s bad that this guy says homophobic slurs and treats his students as if they were somehow trying to mess up just to personally goad him. But you know what? When someone tells you, directly, explicitly, and in so many words, “don’t fucking set the music down,” you know what you should maybe not do? Set the music down. And if you’re spending every day (we assume) drumming and practicing drumming and listening to the great jazz drummers and playing the freaking drums, how on earth do you leave your sticks anywhere not in your immediate line of sight when you’re already late to a competition? And, god forbid, if you were to do either of those things, the appropriate reaction is “Shit. I messed up.” The appropriate reaction is not tackling your teacher on stage at a competition for telling you what any rationale human being would tell you, which is to stop fucking things up. In theory, this should be jeopardizing the experience of everyone else in the band, but the fact that that is never once remarked upon is characteristic of the film’s singular focus on these two shitty human beings and the terrible stuff they do to each other.
It can be fun watching two people try to destroy each other as the premise for a movie. The plot ends up being the latter, but never once the former.
Miles Teller is good, but most of his performance is quivering his lower lip, alternated with sweating while playing the drums. JK Simmons is good, but the performance is one-note because the script, and the story, is one-note. He’s awesome, but he only gets to do one thing, and it’s not a particularly pleasant or even engaging thing to watch.