Oh boy does Russell Crowe’s directorial debut ever put the “vanity” in “vanity project”. I cannot imagine a vainer self-directed project, and I say this knowing full well that Chris Evans also has a vanity project coming out this year. Crowe marks his directorial debut with The Water Diviner, in which he also stars, a historical epic about an Australian man who lost his whole family in World War I and then travels to post-Ottoman Turkey to try and find his dead sons and take them back to Australia for burial. It’s a big, sprawling, frequently messy movie that is not without some interesting moments, but which collapses entirely because Crowe has no idea how to tell a story.

The unfortunate thing about The Water Diviner is that Crowe’s performance as Joshua Connor is actually very good. With a better director shaping the movie around him, this could have been something really special. Joshua is one of those old-timey wise backcountry savants, but he’s humanized by his extraordinary grief—he lost all three sons in the Battle of Gallipoli, and his wife, unable to cope, killed herself. Stricken and with nothing left to lose, Joshua travels to Turkey to try and identify his sons’ battlefield remains. To do this, he must navigate the swampy post-war politics of the Continent, as well as a budding relationship with the Muslim widow who runs the hotel where he’s staying. There’s a lot of promising material to work with.

It’s just that Crowe doesn’t know how to handle it. He gets decent performances from the cast, though Olga Kurylenko is a bit adrift as the widowed Ayshe, but so many of the characters are reduced to near-comical stereotypes that it drains some of the weight from the film. The occupying British forces are all jerks, the Turkish soldiers are sympathetic sufferers, the invading Greeks are a dirt-faced horde—it’s kind of insulting, really. There are moments where Crowe offers a humanist approach to the cost of war, showing that no matter what is gained in territory, the cost is never really worth it, but the oversimplified good guy/bad guy dynamics turn it into puppet theater and undercut that message.

There are some strong images, though I was reminded of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s better (and more effective) A Very Long Engagement, which also created some brutal renderings of a World War I battlefield. But still, Crowe isn’t a complete loss behind the camera. He just needs to learn about visual language and using film not as a medium for performance but for stories. It’s a mistake common to actor-directors—as actors they think they’re the reason the movie exists, and then they can’t flip that switch as a director. But an actor is just one small part of what goes into telling a story through film. It’s not enough to hire a good cinematographer to produce attractive frames (for the record, The Water Diviner is lensed by Peter Jackson’s go-to DP Andrew Lesnie, who sadly passed away last night), you have to consider what every single object in every single frame signifies. What does negative space contribute? How are you using contrast?

Ex Machina is eye-popping not because of its super slick setting, but because of how director Alex Garland uses that setting to frame his characters. Ava’s world is so limited and rigidly defined, and every frame is full of lines bisecting the shot, limiting the viewer’s perspective and forcing us to see only what we’re allowed to see. The visual language of Ex Machina is mathematical and oppressive, just like the men trying to control Ava with their very narrowly defined ideas of what she can be. There’s no such elegance in The Water Diviner. Crowe’s performance is great but he’s basically a bull in a china shop, rampaging gracelessly through the emotionally reductive landscape of his film.