‘The Sympathizer’ Review: Robert Downey Jr. Shines With 4 Roles in Park Chan-wook’s HBO Limited Series

Hoa Xuande and Sandra Oh lead the cast of the Viet Thanh Nguyen novel adaptation

Robert Downey Jr. and Hoa Xuande in "The Sympathizer." (Hopper Stone/HBO)

When does a war end? When the final shots are fired? When the treaties are signed? When the POWs come home? For The Captain, the nameless, half-Vietnamese, half-French protagonist and narrator of the new HBO limited series “The Sympathizer,” the Vietnam War never really wraps up. It follows him from Saigon to Los Angeles, where he continues his duties as a communist sleeper agent who really likes R&B (especially the Isley Brothers) and sort of digs America in general.

Based on the Pulitzer-winning 2015 novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen and created by Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, “The Sympathizer” is a story of one young man’s life of absurdity and divided soul — part spy thriller, part dark comedy, but very much its own thing. It’s about the shifting sands of identity, and the hazards of true belief.

Hoa Xuande in “The Sympathizer.” (Hopper Stone/HBO)

It’s also a showy platform for newly minted Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr., who splits himself into quarters to play a cross-section of paternalistic white men lingering on the edge of the action. All are instrumental to the fate of The Captain, played by Hoa Xuande with a more subtle form of shape-shifting, the kind that requires chameleonic deception that eventually wears on the soul. Already a North Vietnamese plant when the series begins in Vietnam, The Captain is sent to the States when Saigon falls, assigned to stick close to a venally corrupt South Vietnamese general (Toan Lee), who dreams of returning to his native country and leading an uprising against the communist regime. In the meantime, The General opens a liquor store within shouting distance of the Hollywood sign and wonders who the spy in his midst might be. The General isn’t terribly bright.

The Captain, however, is. He might even be self-aware, if only he could figure out who or what that self is. He falls for an older woman (Sandra Oh, wonderful as always) who works as a secretary in a local university “Oriental Studies” program. He lands a gig as an advisor to an “Apocalypse Now”-like Vietnam War movie. All the while he’s sending coded communiques back to his handler in Vietnam, and even killing a couple of people who get in the way of his work in L.A. He does little of this with a smile. To be The Captain is to have the weight of the topsy-turvy world on your shoulders. “I was a synthesis of incompatibilities,” he says in a voiceover that doubles as an epic confession sprinkled throughout the series. Like his home country, he is torn in half by forces beyond his control, in a Cold War that often defies logic.

Everywhere he looks — everywhere we look — there’s Downey, who was also an executive producer with his wife, Susan Downey. He plays The Captain’s CIA contact, a sardonic raconteur with fried orange hair and a demeanor that suggests Hunter S. Thompson. He plays an effete, eager-to-appropriate Oriental Studies professor who prides himself on his insight into the Asian psyche. He’s a right wing California congressman, a cross between a ‘70s-era Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston, looking to funnel money to The General’s insurgent cause. And he’s the ego-mad filmmaker behind the aforementioned war movie, braying about his commitment to authenticity as he condescends to the actual Vietnamese on the set.

Robert Downey Jr. in “The Sympathizer (Hopper Stone/HBO)

The movie episodes also feature a scary/funny David Duchovny as a committed method actor going off the deep end, which only adds to the series’ hall-of-mirrors feel: Recall that Downey played a committed method actor (in blackface) making a Vietnam War movie in the comedy “Tropic Thunder.”

There’s a healthy dose of vanity in Downey’s multiplicity, but the same could be said for any other star — Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, and Eddie Murphy come to mind — who has taken on multiple roles in the same project. Downey turns each of his personas into a unique creation, and the casting works on a thematic level as well. In subtle ways the characters all represent the same thing to The Captain: paternalistic but duplicitous white men who think they know more about The Captain than he does himself. If they only knew.

The three directors – Park, Marc Munden and Fernando Meirelles – and lead screenwriter McKellar face a tricky task here. Nguyen’s novel blends big moments and deep trauma (including torture sequences) with deadpan absurdity, the tragic with the ridiculous; it’s a feat of tone-switching more readily and nimbly achieved on the page than on the screen. The series keeps up the balance for a while, especially in the earlier episodes, as The Captain acclimates to Los Angeles living and faces the allure of Western democracy and capitalism. But as “The Sympathizer” moves toward wrapping up its narrative, and The Captain returns home to tie up some loose ends of his psyche (and keep the fight going), the story loses focus. The drama grows muddled. Character motivation gets fuzzy, even within the standards of a series largely defined by ambiguity. What reads as deliciously dry on the page can get a little sloppy on TV.

Sandra Oh in “The Sympathizer.” (Hopper Stone/HBO)

But the images, and the rich incongruities, still linger. It might be a while before you want to eat a hardboiled egg again, or drink a bottle of Coke. Most memorable is Xuande’s face in those moments when The Captain switches gears from implacable mole to anguished cultural in-betweener, stuck in a situation that takes the untenable to extremes. The Captain’s Vietnam War is fated to continue into perpetuity, from the jungles to the palm trees and back.

“The Sympathizer” premieres on Sunday, April 14, on HBO and Max.


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