A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
“Set Fire to the Stars” takes its title from a Dylan Thomas poem and its plot from “Dylan Thomas in America,” the 1956 memoir by poetry scholar John Malcolm Brinnin. In 1950, Brinnin brought Thomas to New York to kick off a multi-city tour of general audience poetry readings and meet-and-greets with the heads of Ivy League universities. Thomas’ reputation as a Welshman who liked his liquor preceded him, and it was up to Brinnin to keep it from succeeding him while on this tour. “Set Fire To The Stars” hinges on whether Brinnin (Elijah Wood) can keep Thomas (Celyn Jones) sober long enough for him to perform a big show before a group of Ivy League bigshots at Yale.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen “My Favorite Year,” the 1982 comedy where Mark-Linn Baker was tasked with babysitting chronic drinker Peter O’Toole before O’Toole’s big comeback on live television. “Set Fire to the Stars” also evokes memories of “My Week With Marilyn,” the dismal Michelle Williams biopic where the boring story of a nobody overshadowed its more famous subject. Instead of a fleshed out, complex portrait of the artist as a tortured soul, we get to meditate on Brinnin and his clichéd quest for success. Brinnin even gets a nemesis named Jack (Steven Mackintosh), whose sole purpose is to sneer with pleasure whenever Brinnin screws up.
With the focus on Brinnin, Thomas never feels like a real person, which is odd given that the actor who plays him also co-wrote the screenplay. There’s reverence in Jones’ portrayal, to be sure, but the movie keeps reducing Thomas to a series of actions on somebody’s checklist: He gets drunk, dispenses advice, gets drunker, looks for fights, sexually harasses women, vomits often, recites dirty (and very effective) limericks in polite company and repeatedly agonizes over a letter sent to America by his wife, Caitlin. Thomas is either too mortified or too apathetic to read it, depending on what the scene requires.
The letter itself is a huge MacGuffin; Brinnin brings it up whenever Thomas irritates or embarrasses him, but this film could have easily existed without any epistolary subplots. When the letter’s contents finally manifest themselves in a visual interpretation by Kelly Reilly (“Heaven Is For Real”) , it serves no purpose besides being an arty device. The scene attempts to convey how strong Caitlin’s hold is on Thomas, but it plays out as a bad director’s choice. However, Reilly deserves credit for fully committing to her one scene: She crawls all over Thomas like a cat who's discovered a human-shaped bag of catnip.