Eric Bana Hurts the One He Loves

In 2007, the last time Eric Bana attended the Tribeca Film Festival, the actor had just experienced a kind of death in the family. Bana arrived in New York mere days afterward, fairly numb to his loss, even cracking jokes about it in his hotel room before hitting the premiere of his film Lucky You. But the wounded eyes said more than his sarcasm, especially when he commented about wanting to wear his auto-racing shoes on the red carpet. Then it hit Bana: What was he doing here when he had just killed his one of his oldest friends?

In reality, his "Beast" -- a souped-up 1974 Ford GT Falcon coupe -- was on the equivalent of automotive life support: Covered and sequestered in an Australian garage, severely disfigured after Bana ended a recent rally race by driving the car into a tree. The incident is at the center of Bana's directorial debut (and slightly happier Tribeca comeback) Love the Beast, a spunky, glossy, fascinating documentary about the relationship between one man and his car. But again, not just any car: The actor and veteran racer had owned his Beast more than half his life, restoring and upgrading it with his other closest mates, for whom the car was akin to their "campfire." And to the extent it was a only possession with a paint job, Bana acknowledged at Wednesday night's premiere that it just as easily could have owned him.

"I think they're flawed humans, and that's what makes them special," he told Movieline. "The longer you have them, the stronger the bond. It's the same with any object, really. I just discovered that out of stubbornness, my car wound up staying with me for my whole life. There was something interesting in that that spoke more broadly."

Like, say, abusing the ones you love?

"Oh, absolutely," Bana said. "That's the job of a race-car driver. I guess the mistake I made was that usually I'll abuse a race car, but in this case I abused a dear old friend. And I paid heavily for the mistake."

The film takes its time exacting that cost, however. Bana's introductory, gee-whiz narration confesses his love of speed and his one-time aspiration to race cars professionally. "Fate, luck and circumstance had other ideas," the leading man half-laments, but even the most moviephobic racing devotee probably couldn't summon the sympathy the line seems to demand. Then Bana's pals and parents show up, setting up a vague human orbit around the actor's motor-love. A coppery vanity-project flavor surfaces, likely even more so for the non-"car people" in the audience.

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Soon Bana joins renowned collector Jay Leno for a picnic in his sprawling garage ("I never sell anything," Leno says. "I just buy another building"), and by the time Dr. Phil McGraw (!) shows up to point out Bana's "peak performance range," Love the Beast's flirts with blinding levels of pop sheen. Then it gets interesting: Bana decides to invest serious Hollywood money into rebuilding his Falcon to top-notch, tarmac-racing condition. New everything, from tires to roof, trunk to bonnet (with plenty of cameras, natch). This is the car he will take to Targa Tasmania, a five-day race in which he and the Beast once finished first in their class.

Suddenly, Beast feels like a real Eric Bana film -- in a good way. He struggles on the first day when both the car and his navigator falter. The second and third days improve, and he squirms in the spotlight between stages. Helicopters track him throughout, leading to the pivotal moment when that whole carefully calibrated orbit folds in on itself. Taken as narrative drama -- which it ultimately is anyway -- Beast's editorial vigor and crisp charisma play like an heir to Paul Newman's guilty auto-racing pleasure Winning. Mention Newman, in fact, or any of the other tiny fraternity of actors with this kind of semi-pro racing compulsion, and Bana perks up.

"It's good for someone who's used to doing a lot of preparation for their work," he told me. "I guess there's a certain amount of competitiveness or wanting to get the best out of yourself that comes with that. Racing is all about that -- extracting the last tenth of a second that you can get out of yourself. That's why I love it: It's a very measurable performance art and very different from my working life. It's nice to be able to bounce between that and something unmeasurable."

Also unmeasurable: The psychology of ownership, which Leno, Dr. Phil and British car commentator Jeremy Clarkson all explore with compelling, almost shocking aplomb. While Dr. Phil conflates prized possessions with the "continuity in your life," Leno's more primal analysis argues that had the wealthy actor essentially betrayed his Falcon, treating it like like a rental car en route to personal glory. His take on Bana's documentary quest isn't much more forgiving: "Your car's sitting there saying, 'He drove me into a tree! Why do I have to sit here while goes around talking to Dr. Phil, when he can just fix me?'"

Meanwhile, Clarkson also attributes human qualities to cars, citing their individuality and capacity for mistakes. Love the Beast almost perfectly defines the singular emotional involvement those qualities bring out -- not just in Bana, Leno, or other racers and connoisseurs, but even in the kind of ordinary guy who kindly but firmly refuses to sell his beat-up old Falcon to one of Bana's team members. The look in his eyes matches that one in Bana's own two years ago, both on display in this odd and oddly brilliant piece of work. If you've ever loved anything you own, on wheels or off, you'll know the feeling.



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