January 17, 2005

MOVIES: Unconditional Love (P.J. Hogan, 2002)

Hogan's the writer/director who made Muriel's Wedding and My Best Friend's Wedding; this movie was co-written with his wife, Jocelyn Moorhouse, herself a talented director (if you haven't seen Proof, you really should). The stars are Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett; the supporting cast includes Jonathan Pryce, Dan Aykroyd, Lynn Redgrave, Peter Sarsgaard, and a cameo from Julie Andrews as herself. Your natural first thought on seeing that kind of talent gathered together is that you're in for a terrific movie.

Then you notice that the film never did have a US theatrical release -- it just played at a few film festivals -- and you begin to think you may be in for altogether different kind of pleasure: This could be one of the classic fiascos of movie history. A cast like that, and the movie can't even get released? It must be absolutely wretched!

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Unconditional Love has some fine moments, but it's far too long, and it can't make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be.

We start off with Grace Beasley (Bates), an unhappy, frumpy Chicago housewife who's just been left by her husband Max (Aykroyd), who wants to go off and "do dangerous things." She hopes to break out of her depression by attending a TV taping of her favorite singer, Victor Fox (Pryce is dead-on as an Engelbert Humperdinck/Tom Jones type, all glittery suits and cheesy love songs); alas, Fox is murdered on his way to the studio. Grace makes the impulsive decision to do something "dangerous" herself; she's going to England for Victor's funeral.

Up to this point, the tone of the movie is roughly that of a very classy Lifetime movie-of-the-week (which sounds more dismissive and pejorative than I actually mean it to). Bates is very good, giving a quiet, subtle performance as a woman who's only beginning to realize how bored she is with her life.

But then Grace gets to England and meets Dirk (Everett), who has been Victor's "valet" -- that is, boyfriend -- for ten years; like Grace, Dirk is fed up with living in the shadows, and he proposes that they should team up to do something really dangerous: They'll go back to Chicago and hunt down the Crossbow Killer, the serial killer who murdered Victor.

And we're off for 90 minutes of madcap antics, completely at odds with the tone established in the first act. The cast is still good -- Everett does nicely with the transition from bitter, grieving widower to the hero surprised at his own recklessness; Redgrave is quite good as Victor's sister, determined to protect his reputation at any cost; and even Bates almost manages to pull off her character's radical switch from mousy frump to determined avenger.

We don't laugh as hard as we should, though, because we're so surprised at suddenly finding ourselves being asked to laugh at all. What this movie needed was one more pass through the editing room. Had they cut the first act by 15 minutes, emphasizing the humor in it, so that the rest of the movie didn't feel so jarring, it would have been a very pleasant comedy.

An interesting note on that Julie Andrews cameo: I don't think it gives away too much to say that she sings in her scenes (there are two; the first quite funny, the second less so, since it repeats exactly the same joke). The movie was made at a time when Andrews was unable to sing at all, due to medical problems; the singing is dubbed in from her pre-existing recordings.

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