Movie Reviews - 2009 postsMonday February 08, 2010
Review: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
WARNING: CUSSIN' SPOILERS
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a joy to watch because it’s both a Wes Anderson movie and a George Clooney vehicle.
Its Wes Andersonness is obvious. It gives us deadpan humor, father-son conflict, characters associated with one absurd and outdated mode of dress. It tosses up chapter titles (“The Go-For-Broke Mission”) and tosses in a tinkly soundtrack and bouncy-but-obscure, British-invasion-era music (“Let Her Dance” by Bobby Fuller Four). In 2007 I wrote the following about the essential Wes Anderson lesson: Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution. That’s still true for his films—whether we’re talking Fischers, Tenenbaums and Zissous or foxes, badgers and weasels.
Where “Fox” differs from a typical Wes Anderson movie is in its hero. Anderson’s protagonists generally pretend to be something they’re not: great playwrights, great oceanographers, caring patriarchs. Eventually their true nature is revealed and they’re excluded from where they want to be. Only in returning, chastened and wiser, do they become the very thing they were pretending to be.
The movement for Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is the opposite. His persona is basically the George Clooney persona—the hyper-articulate, know-it-all whose charm resides in not always knowing it all but mustering through with grace and style anyway—and this persona, Mr. Fox’s persona, hardly changes during the course of the movie. For a time he denies his true nature, but he does so for others, not himself, and it’s a mere blip of screentime. It’s not the Anderson cycle of pretense/exclusion/genuineness. It’s the Clooney promise: Get on board, boys, we’re going for a ride!
The reason Mr. Fox is forced to deny his true nature is the reason many of us are forced to deny our true natures: he starts a family. One moment he and his wife are stealing squabs from a nearby farm, the next they’re trapped by a cage. Before they can escape, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) announces she’s pregnant, and elicits a promise from Mr. Fox that he’ll settle down and never steal squabs and chickens and the like again.
Out of one trap and into another.
For two years (12 fox years, we’re told), Mr. Fox works as a newspaperman and lives with Mrs. Fox and their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), in a comfortable hole, until one day he says he’s tired of living in their comfortable hole. He’s got his eye on a tree that they can’t afford. Except he really wants the tree because of it overlooks Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three farms producing, in order, chickens, turkey and cider, and run by “three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers in the valley,” according to Fox’s lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), who counsels against purchase. Fox ignores him. He tells himself he’s after one last job, by which he means three last jobs, one for each farm. For the first two he drags along Kylie, the passive, not-bright, handyman opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), who is essentially the Pagoda of this film, and both jobs go off, give or take an electric fence, without a hitch.
For the final job, at Bean’s cider farm, Ash tries to tag along but is sent home; instead Fox relies on Ash’s cousin and rival, Kristofferson Silverfox (Eric Anderson), a meditating, martial-arts-training natural athlete who is staying with the family. Again, give or take a rat guard (Willem Dafoe), and the appearance of the very masculine-looking Mrs. Bean (Helen McCrory), the job goes off without a hitch. The problem: of the three nasty farmers, Bean (Michael Gambon, brilliant here) is the nastiest of the bunch. Also the smartest. And he organizes Boggis and Bunce into bringing the fight to Mr. Fox.
Thus begins a war of escalation. First they attempt to shoot Mr. Fox but succeed only in blowing off his tail (which Bean wears as a tie); then they destroy the Fox’s tree home with bulldozers (shades of “Avatar”!), but discover the Foxes have dug down to safety. When they try to dig them out, the Foxes simply dig deeper, and further, and eventually back into the Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms, from which they steal everything. By this time, other animals have been swept up in the war, and they all gather at a large underground dining table to celebrate. But just as Mr. Fox is delivering his toast of triumph, a rumble is heard. The rumble of cider. They’re being flooded out of their homes and into a sewer, from which there appears no escape.
But there is an escape. Earlier, when Mrs. Fox learned of her husband’s treachery, we got the following dialogue:
Mrs. Fox: Why did you lie to me?
Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.
Meanwhile, Ash, who likes to wear a cape, and who doesn’t even have a proper bandit mask but uses a reconstituted tube sock, is dealing with others’ perceptions, and his own perception, of his difference.
And that’s their salvation. They’re all wild animals and they’re all different. Mr. Fox, calling everyone by their Latin names (Oryctolagus Cuniculus! Talpa Europea!), uses the talents of each species for their final plan of attack, their final salvation. Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is delightful on many levels—it’s funny, quirky, tender, adventurous—but it resonates long after you leave the theater for the following reason. The convention of children’s stories is to have wild animals talk, wear clothes, and engage in human professions, and “Mr. Fox” certainly adopts those conventions. Then it upends them by having the wild animals realize the absurdity of not being what they are: wild animals. Wes Anderson, in other words, dresses up his animals as people so the people watching can realize that they, all the lawyers and high school coaches and newspapermen in the audience, are animals. All of us, in small ways, in the clothes we wear or the jobs we have, are denying our true natures. The joy of “Mr. Fox” is that Vulpes Volpes gets to reveal his true nature. The bittersweetness of Homo Sapiens is that, generally, we don’t.
Review: “Precious” (2009)
WARNING: GIFT-OF-THE-UNIVERSE SPOILERS
“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is set in Harlem in the 1980s, a hopeless period for both race relations and social progress in America. If the 1960s was the two steps forward, the 1980s was the one step back. One image from the period, and the film, is particularly weighted with hopelessness to me. With all of the crime in the streets, with all of the crime in the homes, there in the classroom is a poster of McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon hound in a trenchcoat, urging kids to “Take a bite out of crime.” How exactly? By speaking up? By getting an adult? And if the adult is the crime? McGruff is a harbinger of the very thing he fights. He shows up only where crime is rampant and offers nothing. He’s a symbol of impotence.
He’s also a symbol of one of the three universes of “Precious.” All of them are depressing.
The first and worst universe is the brutal, everyday world that Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in. She’s 16, fat, black, illiterate. Sexually abused by her absentee father since age 3, she’s now pregnant with his second child. The first child, who has developmental problems, is being raised by her grandmother, while her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), lives off welfare, watches TV all day, and is emotionally and physically abusive to Precious. She tears down Precious every day with a stream of verbal abuse; if Precious is unresponsive she resorts to the physical kind. Precious is also attacked in the streets and ignored in the schools. There is nowhere she is safe.
Except in the second universe, her fantasy universe, where she often goes after being physically abused. Here she wears feather boas and is photographed on red carpets. She’s on BET and magazine covers. She’s beautiful, important, and loved by a light-skinned boyfriend, but the universe is depressing for being so distant from her reality, and for being a slightly more glamorous version of the empty, cheesy shows her mother watches. Who would even want to live in this universe? Only someone whose reality is the first universe.
The third universe is the solution. When administrators at her public high school discover she’s pregnant with her second child, most likely sexually and physically abused, and virtually illiterate, they release her to a special program in an alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” which is run out of the 11th floor of the Hotel Theresa. Her intro there is inauspicious. The receptionist puts personal phone calls ahead of administrative duties, doesn’t even expect Precious (though there’s hardly a clog of humanity at the place), and needs copies of a phone bill and her mother’s budget to complete the bureaucratic process. Precious’ second day begins even worse. She needs money for food but her mother is masturbating in bed and ignores her. So Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and eats most of it on the way to school, before throwing it back up in a school garbage can beneath a sign reading: “Try for a better future.” There are such self-esteem signs all over the school. One reads: “Determination.” In another, the following words form a circle: “feeling good about yourself will lead to more reasons for” and back to the first word. Plus there’s McGruff. That harbinger of good times.
When Precious finally enters the classroom (via white light?), the feeling-good-about-yourself times continue. The students, five or six girls, are asked by their teacher, who goes by the name Blu Rain (Paula Patton), to talk about something they’re good at. After the movie, walking down Broadway on Capitol Hill, my girlfriend Patricia commented with amazement on how “all of those girls were so different.” One’s a tough Chicana, one’s a lesbian, one’s from Jamaica, etc. “That’s the point,” I replied flatly. “I know,” she responded, “But...” She liked it. She was caught up in it. I wasn’t. I also wondered about casting. If the classroom was supposed to be feel-good, how did Paula Patton wind up as Ms. Rain? She’s pretty enough to make Halle Berry feel like something the cat dragged in.
And so our first and third universes battle for the soul of Precious. The caring teacher vs. the uncaring mother. One props up, one drags down. “You’re special, Precious.” “You think you’re special, Precious?” Ms. Rain has the students write every day, and the book, “Push,” by Sapphire, is in the first-person, so you get a sense of the progress Precious makes through the writing itself. That might be interesting. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of “The Color Purple,” which was a best-seller, and then a hit movie, a few years before the time “Precious” is set in. Aspects of “Precious” also reminded me of “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s first novel, which was published in 1970, and which I read around the time Precious was first walking into that classroom, when Sapphire herself was a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and dealing with girls like Precious every day. I guess every generation needs their version of this story; I guess it’s why it felt old to me.
No, it’s worse. Parts of it feel like a lie. Even as Ms. Rain tells Precious it’s OK to be fat and black (but not illiterate), the good people in the film—Ms. Rain, Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz), and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey)—are thin, good-looking, light-skinned. That’s what good is in this universe. “But you’re still beautiful, Precious.”
The movie’s villain, meanwhile, is fat and black. Mary allows her child to be sexually abused and then blames the child for taking away her man. She’s also an argument against welfare—wasting her life in a small cluttered apartment and watching the worst TV has to offer. There are few cinematic moments more depressing than Mary doing a bump-and-grind while smoking and watching Florence Henderson give clues on “$100,000 Pyramid.” The horror of our culture is in that moment. The waste... The waste...
Mo’Nique is smart enough to play Mary as the victim—that’s how she sees herself. It’s a great performance and Mo’Nique deserves her accolades. Put it this way: I believed Mary. I believed Ms. Weiss, too. She’s fighting the good fight but she also has the tired, thousand-yard stare of the career bureaucrat. With the world the way it is, you can only care so much. After her appointment with Precious, she has one with, say, Angela, and another with Bettina, and Clarice, and on and on until five o’clock, at which point she gets to punch out and grab a drink, and then do it all again tomorrow. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year. With that schedule, how much emotion do you put into your 10:15? Carey plays her right. But Ms. Rain? She cares. Deeply. Particularly about Precious. Because Precious is precious? No, because we’re watching Precious’ story rather than Rita’s story, or Rhonda’s or Jermaine’s or Joann’s or Consuelo’s. Ms. Rain has to care more about her because we care more about her. “Your baby loves you,” she tells Precious. “I love you.” In a gritty, horrific story, Ms. Rain is wish-fulfillment. That’s why I didn’t believe her. Or the movie.
Review: “Broken Embraces” (2009)
WARNING: NONE-SO-BLIND SPOILERS
Pedro Almodovar’s “Los abrazos rotos” (“Broken Embraces”) begins with a movie being filmed. We’re seeing through a camera as technicians fuss around the female star, who stands in the center, lost in thought. She might be bored. At one point, she charmingly gives her lips a Chaplinesque back-and-forth waggle. Then she’s replaced by Penelope Cruz. The original girl wasn’t the star but the stand-in. One anticipates doppelganger themes, or themes of perception, for the rest of the film. The person you’re watching isn’t the person you think you’re watching.
Indeed, after the opening credits, we get a close-up of a female eye with the face of a man visible in the pupil. The man who’s being seen can’t see. He’s writer-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), who gave up the name, and the directing half of his profession, when he lost his sight 15 years earlier. Now he goes by the nom de plume Harry Caine.
The owner of the eye (Kira Miro) is reading to Harry at the breakfast table about the death of a businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Is she his nurse? After quizzing her about Martel’s death, he says he’s not interested in the news; he’s interested in her. What’s she like? He asks for her measurements (36-26-36). He asks her to describe her looks. He asks if he can touch her face with his hands. He does. And he works his way down. And her breathing gets heavier. And he lifts the thin straps of her chemise and squeezes her breasts.
Me in the audience: Pedro, you are my favorite gay man.
They have sex on the couch, which Almodovar films discreetly but sensually, as he pans slowly across the back of the couch, revealing a hand there, a foot there. Afterwards, with the woman in the bathroom, another woman, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), arrives and looks disapprovingly at Harry. He senses her disapproval and tells her: “Everything’s already happened to me. All that’s left is to enjoy life.” The reader of the newspaper isn’t his nurse after all; she’s simply somebody who helped him across the street. And Judit? Is she maid to Harry? Assistant? Friend? Ex-wife? One senses a history. And the handsome young man, Diego (Tamar Novas), who shows up a minute later? He’s her son, but what is he to Harry? He almost seems like a son to him, too. Much of the movie is sussing out such relationships. What do these characters mean to each other? You could say that’s the question each of us asks every day. What do we characters mean to each other?
By the way: Harry’s wrong. Everything hasn’t happened to him. And it’s the death of Martel that sets things in motion again.
Harry tells Judit a story he wants to make into a film. The playwright Arthur Miller had a son with Down Syndrome whom he cut out of his life; but the son grew to a man and forgave him, going so far as to tell him, at a fundraiser for people like himself, “I’m proud of you, papa.” It’s a story about an overwhelming act of forgiveness, but soon Harry is visited by a young filmmaker, Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants to make a film about the opposite: filial unforgiveness. A father who couldn’t abide a gay son, who made the son ignore what he was. Bitterness emanates from Ray—it’s obvious he’s talking about himself—but Harry detects even more, and, with Diego’s help, realizes that Ray is the son of Ernesto Martel, and Ernesto Martel is the man who ruined Harry’s life.
Much of the rest of the film is flashback—told by Harry to Diego.
In 1992, Lena (Penelope Cruz), not an actress at all but secretary to Martel, is overwhelmed because her father is dying of stomach cancer and the health-care system is spitting him out. Martel is sympathetic, allowing her the afternoon off to attend to him. But things get worse for the father. He’s in agony. At one time Lena was a budding actress but went nowhere except into the role of sometime, high-class prostitute, and she contacts her former madam to get some quick money to help her father. Except a client phones her at home and that’s not the way it works. The madam admits, with a shrug, that one wealthy client insisted that if Lena ever returned to the business he would get her home phone. The client, by the way, is Martel. Initially we wonder if it’s all a fantastic coincidence. Then we don’t. As solicitous as he initially seemed, he’s always had his eye on her. After he helps her get her father into assisted care, the two walk away together, not touching. One senses debts about to be paid.
Two years later she’s his mistress. Meanwhile director Mateo Blanco is making a comedy, “Chicas y maletas” (“Girls and Suitcases,” recognizable as a spin on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), and Lena wants to try out for a role. She does, and there’s an immediate spark between the two. Judit, who’s around even then, is jealous. Martel is jealous. He gets his son, Ernesto, Jr., the future Ray X, hampered by bad skin, bad hair and big glasses, to film them as they film the movie; then he employs a lip reader to tell him what they’re saying. Initially it’s all work stuff. But behind closed doors, away from Ernesto, Jr.’s camera, we find out it’s more. They’re hot and heavy in love. Martel suspects it and takes Lena away for a weekend.
I’m not a huge Almodovar fan but I love the way he allows us the time and space to figure things out. At this point in the movie, for example, we see two people making love under the sheets. For a second the sheets seem like a shroud. Are they? Is this sex as death? Yet the two seem to be enjoying themselves. Is it Lena and Mateo? No, when the sheets are removed, it’s Lena and Martel, away for the weekend. So maybe she loves both men?
Then she goes into the bathroom and throws up. It was sex as death. The sheets were a shroud.
The following Monday, having spent all weekend acting with Martel, her acting before the camera suffers, and when Mateo questions her she complains about Martel, calling him a monster. Of course it’s all filmed by Ernesto, Jr., and said aloud by the lip-reader. And now Martel knows.
This is where Almodovar loses me. He’s always had a bit of Douglas Sirk in him and I’ve never liked grand-staircase melodrama. But that’s what we get. Lena returns to say her final goodbyes, and, just as she’s heading down the grand staircase, he pushes her, she falls, she can’t get up. Now she’s in a cast. How can they film the rest of her scenes? They improvise. Then she shows up at Mateo’s with bruises on her face, and, with the film in the can, she and Mateo go away for a month and only return to Madrid when their movie opens to critical pans. Mateo must find out what they did to ruin his film in his absence.
During the course of watching this film, Almodovar’s film, we assume Lena’s dead, since she’s not in the present; so we wonder how she died and how Mateo went blind. That’s in the last act. On their way back to Madrid, Ernesto, Jr., looking sinister, is on their trail again, thanks to information he and his father received reluctantly from Judit. He’s filming them as they kiss in their car at an intersection; and he’s filming them as they pull out into the intersection and an SUV slams into the passenger’s side, killing Lena, blinding Mateo.
In other words: Someone meant them harm, harm was done, but the two aren’t related. It was all a horrible accident.
In the end, Harry and Diego—his son, he learns, 90 minutes after the rest of us figure it out—work together to re-make “Chicas y maletas,” which Martel had purposely sabotaged. Ray X is helpful, too. Forgiveness, the point of the Arthur Miller story, abounds.
I’m all for forgiveness but “Broken Embraces” ranges too far with its story and themes and feels weak as a result. I expected, even as I wrote this, for the film to coalesce in some way, but it didn’t, or hasn’t. At the start, the people you’re watching are not the people you think you’re watching: the movie star who’s a stand-in; the nurse who’s a fling. For the rest of the film, everyone is exactly who you think they are. I guess I wanted something a little more melodramatic, or at least surprising, from Mr. Almodovar. I didn’t want twists so obvious even a blind man could see them.
Nurse? Assistant? 36-26-36?
Review: “New Moon” (2009)
WARNING: PENSIVE, TORTURED SPOILERS
Near the end of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” as the Volturi, the council that enforces vampiric law, is arguing over what to do with vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and his human girlfriend Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart), one of the members of the council, Marcus (Christopher Heyerdahl, distantly related to Thor Heyerdahl), stands and declares, “Let us be done with this!”
Me in the audience: Amen, brother.
“New Moon” is painful. It's as painful as listening to a girl lament about some unsolvable problem everyday for a year. Bella and Edward start out tortured together (Bella: “I can’t even think of someone hurting you.” Edward: “Bella, the only thing that can hurt me is you.”), and they soon become tortured separately. She thrashes in bed. She sleepwalks through her day. Basically she’s waiting, which means basically we’re waiting. At one point the kids debate which movie to see at the local theater, “Love Spelled Backwards is Love” or “Face Punch,” and Bella opts for the latter, declaring, “Guns, adrenaline, that’s my thing.”
Me in the audience: Then it’s a good thing you’re not watching your movie.
It begins well enough with the image of a new moon that slowly fades to a half-moon, a quarter, sliver, all the while revealing the title. Then we get a dream/nightmare from Bella. She’s at the edge of the woods looking over an open field toward more woods, where an old woman, her grandmother, stands. She’s with Edward, and, though she warns him, he walks into the sunlight, revealing his vampireness (vampirity?) to her grandmother; so she walks with him into the open field to introduce the two. But when she speaks her grandmother speaks, with the same voice, using the same words. She looks over at Edward, confused. When she looks back, she’s looking into a mirror. Her grandmother is her. She’s aged, Edward hasn’t, and she’s an old woman now. Then she wakes up. A year older. It’s her 18th birthday.
Everyone wants to celebrate it except her, and one gets the feeling it’s not just the nightmare. She’s just built that way. People do shit for her and her response is blank confusion. She’s a bit of a downer.
When she first sees Edward, at school, in the parking lot, he walks toward her in slow motion. That’s how love is revealed these days: via slow-mo. In the old days it was through words, words, words, and in English class we get one such example: “Romeo and Juliet.” Which means after hearing the Bard’s dialogue, and after Bella is nearly attacked by one of Edward’s clan and the Cullens decide to leave Forks, we get Stephenie Meyer’s dialogue:
Edward: You just don’t belong in my world, Bella.
Bella: I belong with you.
Edward: No, you don’t.
Bella: I’m coming with you.
Edward: Bella, I don’t want you to come with me.
Bella: You... You don’t want me...?
He goes, she’s bereft. And bereft and bereft. At one point she realizes that whenever she's in danger she sees Edward's face, so she keeps putting herself in danger. She becomes an adrenaline junkie, and her friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), helps her rebuild some junker motorcycles to help her newfound need for speed. She enjoys his company but he’s got a crush on her. Plus he’s a werewolf—part of that Native American wolf pack that has treaties with vampires. When she learns this she manages to rise above the emotional minutia of her life and wonders whether all of the stories she heard as a child, of fairies and trolls, are true; but then, poof, that moment is gone, and it’s back to Bella Bella Bella. Me, I wondered if this meant there was some Frankensteinian clan living over by Lake Quinault. Fire, bad. Rain, good.
As awful as the dialogue was before the revelation, it gets that much worse after it. Here’s Bella and Jacob walking on the beach:
Bella: So. [Long pause.] You’re a werewolf.
Jacob: Yep. Last time I checked.
Werewolves, we find out, are warm, 108 degrees, which is why these wolf-boys run around shirtless in the Pac Northwest winter. (BTW: Are there girl werewolves? Is there a Title IX issue for them somewhere?) Like the Cullens, this wolf pack leaves humans alone. They prowl after bad vampires. They like cliff diving. They eat muffins. As wolves do.
“Twilight” fans are apparently divided between Team Jacob and Team Edward, and, with no rights in the matter—not having read the books, disliking the movies, and being, you know, a straight guy—I’ll still cast my vote for Edward. Maybe because he’s more learned. Maybe because his powers are tempered by shame. Probably because Pattinson’s the better actor.
Much of the movie is Jacob mooning after Bella, who is mooning after Edward, but in the last act she travels to Rome to save Edward. He thinks Bella’s dead and, like Romeo, he’s thinking of suicide. Which, for a vampire, means revealing himself to humans so the Volturi will kill him. He’s about to do this when Bella arrives in the nick of time and saves him. (Take that, Shakespeare!) But the two are led before the Volturi anyway, and the council debates the whole ugly matter. Should they kill him, whom they can’t trust, or her, who knows too much? Him? Her? Him? Her? She shocks them when she offers her life to save his. A human? Doing this for one of us? Well, to be fair, Aro (Michael Sheen), a good-looking one of you. You might do better with the girls, too, if you dressed snappier and didn’t look so creepily bug-eyed all the time.
By the end we’re back in Forks. All of that turmoil just to get Edward to see the logic of turning Bella into a vampire—which she contemplates the way other girls contemplate losing their virginity: “I was thinking maybe after graduation?” So the movie is less love story than an excruciatingly long and pointless pause in the love story. It sets up the love triangle that really isn’t a love triangle. Poor Jacob. He’s got the bod and the sincerity, but you can gauge each couple by what it watches. Bella and Edward get “Romeo and Juliet.” Bella and Jacob? “Face Punch.”
Review: “A Single Man” (2009)
WARNING: MODEL-HANDSOME SPOILERS
“A Single Man” is a serious film with a one-joke premise. It’s a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor of literature in Los Angeles in October 1962, and he’s spending it planning his suicide. His lover has recently died, he’s alone, he can’t go on. The Falconer cannot hear the falcon. But throughout the day, people keep intruding upon his plans. His divorcee friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), insists he come over for dinner, he runs into a hot Spaniard outside the liquor store, a cute student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), questions him, compliments him, insinuates himself into his life, goes skinny-dipping with him in the surf. By the end of the day George has an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and he’s ready to go on living. Then he has a heart attack and dies. Badda boom.
It’s an atmospheric film. Too atmospheric. It was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford from a Christopher Isherwood novel, and we get a lot of slow-motion shots of people too beautiful to exist against backdrops that feel designery—the Hitchcock “Psycho” painting on the brick wall, for example. George’s squabbling neighbors are beautiful, his students are model-beautiful, the secretaries at the university are done up just so, while Carlos at the liquor store could make even straight men gay. Even Colin Firth, who’s never exactly been Paul Newman, looks great in his designer eyeglasses and Tom Fordish suits. Thank God for the maid: She looks like a maid.
The movie opens with George dreaming he’s drowning. He dreams of a car accident in the snow and crawls up to a sprawled, bloody body and kisses him on the lips. Then he wakes up, and, in voice over, tells us how it hurts to wake up, how long it takes him to become George again, how each day is a haze. How today will be different.
In flashbacks, we get some of his life with Jim (Matthew Goode), starting with the phone call informing him of Jim’s death in a car accident. The caller, Hank, is a sympathetic member of Jim’s family—the other family members voted against even passing along this information to George—but Hank’s sympathies only go so far. When George, distraught, asks about funeral arrangements, he’s told, in effect, Don't bother, the services are for family only. It took a moment to place the voice: Jon Hamm, Don Draper of “Mad Men.” So even the voices are shockingly handsome.
The best-actor talk for Firth begins with this phone conversation, particularly after he hangs up, when his face crumples into a myriad of emotions: horror, fear, pain, disgust, anger, guilt, horror. It’s heartbreaking. The rest of the film seems a disservice to this moment.
Do we know when the car accident happened? How far in the past? The film, like George’s days, is a haze. The film is also like George in that both miss Jim. When we see him in flashbacks, with his amused eyes and love of life, we want to follow him, but we’re stuck with George, who’s cramped and internal and too persnickety even to kill himself properly. There’s certainly humor in the situation. He leaves his financial information in neat piles on his desk (to save someone the trouble) and lays out the suit and tie he wants to be buried in. “Tie in a Windsor knot,” he writes. He’s about to blow his brains out but he wants the Windsor knot. Then he can’t even do this. The pillows aren’t right, he worries about the mess, he tries it within a sleeping bag. Finally, fed up, he heads over to Charley’s for dinner.
Julianne Moore is also getting Oscar buzz, deservedly so. Charley’s still beautiful, but she’s aging and knows it, and she’s alone and feels it, and there’s pain in her smile and laugh. Their dinner together is sad. He counsels against living in the past and she responds, “Living in the past is my future.” His goal, of course, is, as he says earlier, to let go of the past “completely, entirely and forever.” And not in a carpe diem kind of way.
Before he takes another pass at blowing his brains out, though, he needs some Dutch courage and heads down to the local bar. There he runs into Kenny again, the cute student who’s been stalking him, and, with a kind of “fuck it” manner, he loosens up, goes skinnydipping, takes Kenny back to his place, and puts him to bed without bedding him. He has his epiphany staring at the stars. He’s feeling something like happy. And then he has the heart attack. Carpe diem indeed.
I’m curious about Isherwood’s novel now, since “A Single Man” feels like the kind of story that’s so internal it only works as a novel. Tom Ford and Colin Firth give it a go and create a fashionable failure.