It’s been a while since the ultimate male weepie, GLADIATOR, that film which had even the most hardened Alpha dogs commiserating at the gym and over the water cooler, unashamedly admitting the tears they shed. Sure, there was 300 and last year’s update of THE CHAMP, THE WRESTLER, but few films have come as close to stirring the ever-submerged female side of jocks as the spectacle of the gorgeously stoic Russell Crowe (a far cry from his real life, hotel telephone-hurling rager personality) taking on the full unjust burden of the ancient Roman Empire. Female weepies usually concern love of the impossible kind, usually for someone married or otherwise inappropiate, if not downright insane. Sometimes the heroines even die for love, whether through suicide or some incredibly self-abnegating sacrifice. The formula for male weepies is even simpler: the staunch protagonist courageously going it alone in the face of insurmountable odds brought on by his more bloodthirsty, craven fellow man or extraterrestrial force. Almost always here, the hero dies.
This season brings an unusual number of manly tearjerkers. BROTHERS contains an unusually strong performance from the usually prettily bland Jake Gyllenhaal as Tommy Cahill, a ne’er-do-well misfit sibling, but is most remarkable for Toby McGuire who brings real intensity to Sam, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, and obviously changed by the experience to the consternation of his family. At first, when you see the actor cuddling his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) and little daughters, calling them “my girls,” there’s a faint sense of displacement – he seems too young to be a daddy – but then you realize, indeed, how heartbreakingly young are so many of these soldier fathers. He skillfully sustains the tension with an admirable emotional authenticity, and the film seems a decent, near-Hallmark Hall of Fame soapera, with its mean militaristic martinet of a parriarch (Sam Shepard, aptly playing an archetype that is both infuriating and frightening) and the burgeoning love of Tommy for the suffering Grace. The little actresses who play their daughters are blessedly real and unaffected, and therefore touching, and Portman is good enough in a rather colorless role which only calls for her to be painfully bewildered by her spouse and renunciative, however moved, in the face of Tommy’s attentions. (Unfortunately, she is unable here to show anything like the power she displayed in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, or the surprising versatility of her Jewish Orthodox diamond dealer in NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU.) Jim Sheridan’s clean, straightforward direction is a corn-avoiding asset, but the movie would be pretty unexciting were it not for Sam’s ultimate revelation of what happened to him in Afghanistan.
We have already seen the horrific fate of Sam’s fellow soldier in a flashback, but even that devastating sequence pales alongside McGuire’s electrifying, hysterical final recounting of it to Grace. With this scene, McGuire attains real, rare greatness as an actor and makes the film eminently worth catching.
Very WRESTLER-like, indeed, is CRAZY HEART, in which Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a brilliant but bottom-scraping Country Western singer on the comeback road. He drinks too much, alienates those who want to help him, has an estranged kid who wants nada to do with him and, yes, is in precarious health. Bridges has, for years, been one of our best, most underrated film actors, and he brings a seasoned authenticity to the part, as well as some serious musical chops (although I wish he’d been allowed to do a complete song here more often.) But, as written and directed by young rookie Scott Cooper, it’s the slimmest sliver of a film, lacking a certain lived-in richness of material, all those drunken binges and remorseful hiospital scenes aside.
Weak casting also takes away from the movie. Colin Farrell, although obviously a star, is precisely the wrong kind of star to play Blake’s nemesis, the younger, more popular, on top of his game singer Tommy Sweet. You really have to stretch to believe in this callow, brogue-supressing lad as an actual musical twanger here, and Robert Duvall as Blake’s old fishing crony is merely tiresome, a complacently phone-in codger performance. But it’s Maggie Gyllenhaal who presents the real problem. As Jean, a young single mother of a music journalist who wants to winnow her way into Blake’s life, she’s simply unbelievable, being too urban and innately sophisticated for the role. Her Southern accent feels very put on and she doesn’t do much except ply her usual panoply of flirty smirks and pained downward glances to express deep emotion with that veil of dark hair framing everything all too aptly. She’s neither womanly enough or intriguingly girlish to convince us of Blake’s great passion for her, instead coming off as, indeed, the last stop on his road.
From the first moments of Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN – a nude guy floating slow-mo in the ocean, an auto accident composed as prettily as if it were a Bergdorf’s window display – you know you’re in for an arty-farty experience of the worst kind. Ford has taken Christopher Isherwood’s novel and literally fashioned it into something where an unimaginatively “tasteful” visual style takes precedence over everything – emotion, dramatic impetus, real human experience.
As George, a school teacher who is mourning the death (in that aforementioned car wreck) of his lover, Colin Firth is handsome and dignified, and also stoic, noble, with flashes of inner-directed humor ever so slightly quivering his stiff Brit upper lip. In short, he is exactly as he is in nearly everything else he’s done and completely unexciting. He’s a middle-aged poster child of a gay man, the kind of unflamboyant, solidly professional, quietly attractive type the more conservative members of the queer community – many of whom would die before ever marching in a Gay Pride event -always love to promote. (He probably would have made a good friend to those idealized, manly bores Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas played in PHILADELPHIA.) There’s a moment in the film in which George considers suicide and we see his tortuous preparations, presented with all the accoutrements of black humor, but it isn’t at all funny, as Firth is so completely lacking in even a tinge of the outrageous which nearly every gay man I’ve ever known possesses to some degree. Unable to raise financial support for this film, Ford put his own money into it, and I just wish that, as a homosexual himself, he had been brave and fair (and smart) enough to cast a gay actor – even, God forbid, a “non-name” – as this character in a book which was Isherwood’s personal favorite of all his work, and raved over by such as Gore Vidal, to whom it was dedicated, and Edmund White. Besides bestowing this coveted role rightly on “one of our own,” a good gay actor would not have had to perform such a huge leap of faith as almost any straight actor must inevitably do to be George. Indeed, “perform” is the operative word here, instead of just “being” gay.
Whatever George may lack in personality or emotional depth (although he staunchly brushes back an ocean of tears), Ford has “made up for” in his exquisite haberdashery, which looks like it walked right off his last men’s collection runway. How a high school English teacher affords such glad rags – or his quite amazing style temple of a house – is never explained, but then everyone in the film is turned out with pallid exquisiteness. Ford also missed a cinematic opportunity to present early ’60s Los Angeles, the sybaritic sunniness of which so contrasts with George’s innate Englishness. Rather than presenting any kind of raffishly alluring Hockneyesque milieu, we get carefully placed movie posters of Hitchcock movies, as if to trumpet the director’s omniscient film savvy, but merely remind one that when the French Nouvelle Vague directors like Truffaut and Godard did this, it seemed like purely organic homages, with Ford, it’s just imitative.
Also looking runway “fierce,” as the fashion kids say today (probably not knowing that this word usage is as old as the hills, stemming from legendary, late ’70s black discos like Paradise Garage), are two other, achingly slim, achingly sweet would-be men in George’s life, a dark, Latino hustler (who probably wouldn’t have charged him a cent) and, an all-too neatly contrasting blonde student who stalks George right into his bedroom. George, as sufferingly devoted a widow(er) as Jackie Kennedy or Greer Garson and Irene Dunne in all their combined movies ever dreamt of being, grandly turns both of them down. (The more irreverent of you in the audience may just want to snicker, “Get her!”)
To liven things up, Ford brings in Julianne Moore as Charlie, a former lover from his straight past. If there was a cartoon version of Webster’s, and you looked up “fag hag,” a photo of Moore could easily pop up alongside the definition, so strenuously does the actress play this role. She works hard with her dippy Mayfair accent to convey a modish swinging sense of fun and savoir-faire, but her conceptual heaviness somehow only adds to the story’s depressive weight, much as Susan Sarandon’s similar turn does in THE LOVELY BONES.
The sheer airless pretentiousness of the whole effort has an inescapable grimness to it, not to mention a whiff of vanity project, like the lavish number of credits producer/director/writer Ford has afforded himself (although he co-wrote the script with David Scearce, God forbid he should share that credit on the screen, instead giving himself a completely separate, unnecessary, and rather ridiculous-looking title). Then there’s Abel Korzeniowksi’s droning music slathered over the whole damn thing, like some slavishly copycat Philip Plastic, er, I mean Glass.
When I met Isherwood’s surviving partner, artist Don Bachardy, at the Santa Monica house they shared a few years ago, he told me that Ford had just been to visit him, inquiring about the rights to A SINGLE MAN. “I had no idea who he was,” Bachardy told me. “But he was very well-dressed.”
Which rather says it all.
There was also
and, OF COURSE, those who made a full-time career of fag-haggery