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Categories: Movie Reviews

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have tried to keep a film they improvised in the mid 90’s behind closed doors, but a producer has made it available to the public. 

donsplum

It’s a shame to ever see art suppressed, especially at the expense of creators who have labored so hard to make sure the world can see the best they have to offer. This week there’s been no shortage of controversy surrounding artistic freedom in the YouTube world, where popular film commentary team Channel Awesome has struggled with crippling faults in the site’s copyright policy, and where viral video institution The Fine Bros have faced severe (and deserved) backlash surrounding their attempt to trademark, among other things, the word ‘react’. 

In Hollywood, an even more sinister story has been oozing its way into the forefront, likely in reaction to the wholly unavoidable media attention surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio and his near-inevitable Oscar chances for The Revenant. In the wake of Leo’s tour through the awards circuit, a mostly-forgotten film from his “pussy posse” days has resurged, and has once again raised questions about the rights artists have over their original work. 

Said film is Don’s Plum, a largely improvised black-and-white dramedy directed by R.D. Robb and released at Berlinale in 2001 after being shot in the mid 90’s. Legally prevented from an official release in the US and Canada by DiCaprio and fellow star Tobey Maguire, supposedly because the film was cut into a feature instead of the short it was originally intended to be, Don’s Plum has gone largely unseen by the general public. 

That could hopefully change, as producer Dale Wheatley has made an effort to speak out against DiCaprio and Maguire, who he claimed maliciously attacked Don’s Plum in order to suppress improvised performances that might serve to tarnish their reputation. Last week, Wheatley made the film available to the public on Vimeo, though it was promptly taken down after a copyright strike from the two actors. On his website, however, he offers to send anyone who emails him a link to the film. The same website hosts a chilling open letter in which Wheatley lays down his side of the issue, reading which has changed my impression of Tobey Maguire forever.

maguiredonsplum

Holding back art from the public or preventing artists from sharing their work is a crime against personal enrichment and societal progress that I find hard to forgive in any case, and it’s especially hard to swallow when it involves people in power stomping on the little guys in an attempt to save face. Nonetheless, I’m sure that Wheatley’s story doesn’t paint the whole picture of this unfortunate debacle – no one viewpoint ever does – and it’s hard for even this to put any severe dent in my appreciation of DiCaprio, who might just be our generation’s greatest movie star.

Nevertheless, art is made to be consumed, and after Don’s Plum was made available I took it upon myself to watch it. What I was left with was both an appreciation for R.D. Robb’s vision, and more of an understanding as to why Leo and Tobey would want this film as far from the public eye as possible. 

Set mainly over the course of one dinner-table conversation, Don’s Plum watches a hormonal group of bros descend on their favorite hangout spot, Don’s Plum, for their weekly night of philosophizing, womanizing, and one-upsmanship. The film opens with each of the guys – played by DiCaprio, Maguire, Kevin Connolly and Scott Bloom – attempting to find girls to take with them (a challenge they supposedly undergo each time), and then spends most of its runtime at the same table, allowing each of the actors to let loose within a thin plot structure that’s basically “talk as openly as you want in the edgiest ways you can think of.” Eventually, in the whirlwind of mean-spirited misogyny and homophobia (mostly spouted by DiCaprio’s character), everything descends into chaos, showing the miserable lives of miserable people at its utmost misery. 

This structure works incredibly well, as we’re able to see these actors create some of the most interesting, shocking, and disturbingly real characters they’ve ever played. In the case of Jenny Lewis (also the lead singer of Rilo Kiley), who plays Bloom’s love interest, it’s one of the few characters she’s ever had the chance to play. What a shame, too, because boy does she play it well. Broken and conflicted, her character is the humane center of an explosive ensemble. 

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Central to that ensemble is of course DiCaprio, who is on certain levels even more brutal here than he was in Django Unchained. Clad in ripped baggy pants and swearing up a storm of relentless put-downs every time he opens his mouth, he smacks of arrogant entitlement with every vile phrase. The epitome of a young bully picking on people (and he picks on everyone) solely for his own enjoyment, Leo’s character is one of his darkest creations, all the more terrifying given most of the role was improvised.

Whether or not this is representative of the way DiCaprio carried himself in his teenage, pre-Titanic years is up for debate, but either way, it’s a punishing performance that demands to be seen. That DiCaprio can make such a horrible character disturbingly likable in scenes is his magic, and Don’s Plum serves as a vital part of his filmography. 

Furthermore, the improvisational structure and often experimental editing style (there are constant, random asides to the characters talking to themselves in the bathroom mirror) add to the fascination the film provokes, and the unique direction Robb took with the film. It’s not conventional nor is it always substantial, but Don’s Plum, made increasingly haunting by its black-and-white cinematography, is an important pocket in the annals of film history.

It’s a shame that such behind-the-scenes turmoil had to befall this film, because it’s hardly one DiCaprio should be ashamed of. While it doesn’t paint a positive picture of his character if he was actually just playing an extreme version of himself, it’s nonetheless an impressive performance and an important part of his development as an actor that he has every reason to be proud of. And in the case of Tobey Maguire, who seemed to be the one really driving the campaign against the film, well, his character’s the nice guy, for the most part. I can’t remember seeing anything that could be even remotely controversial. So what’s the problem there?

But the controversy is what it is, and there’s a good chance the two superstars blocking the film will do anything in their means to continue to do so. Hopefully that’s not the case – even better, hopefully there will be reforms to prevent this kind of artistic restriction in the future – but neither actor has seemed to respond to Wheatley’s criticism in wake of the film’s leak. Either way, I highly recommend DiCaprio fans check out the film by any means possible, and I full support every effort to #FreeDonsPlum. 

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Feb 1, 2016

One Response to ““Don’s Plum” – the fascinating film Leo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire want banned”
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  1. Avatar Lulu says:

    I’m an actor myself, so this is a very controversal topic for me. Because especially at the beginning of your career you do projects that are not backed by TV stations or well known production companies. You do it for the experience, for credit and because you find the role interesting. But it’s really hard to estimate wether it’s going to be any good. Lighting, sound, set, post production, co-stars, camera, directing… the less professional all those components are, the worse your performance will look in it, even though you maybe are a decent actor. So I totally understand actors not wanting certsin matetial out in the public. As for “Don’s Plum” in particular I don’t really have an opinion on it, because I haven’t seen it.

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