January 11, 2010

MOVIES: A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)

There are very fine performances to be found here, but they are trapped in a movie that is far less interesting than they deserve.

It is 1962, and George (Colin Firth) is still mourning the death of his lover some eight months earlier; George's grief doesn't seem to have lessened any, but he thinks that he may have finally found the only way to move on. This is as good a performance as Firth has ever given. He is particularly heartbreaking when receiving the phone call that informs him of Jim's death (and tells him that he will not be welcome at the funeral); there is no melodramatic weeping or hurling of objects, just a terrifying, fragile stillness, as if to move at all would be more than he could bear.

Since Jim's death, the only real friend George has left is Charly (Julianne Moore), a fellow ex-pat Brit with whom he once had a brief romantic relationship, and who still carries a giant torch for him ("and if you hadn't been a giant poof, we could have been happy!" she screams at one point). They spend evenings together, taking inordinate pleasure in wallowing together in their own misery.

If there is hope for George to rejoin humanity and get on with life, it may come from Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), the pretty young college student who has the hots for professor George. Their scenes together are among the best in the movie. While I certainly wouldn't want to return to that era, there is something intensely romantic about the tension in their conversations; even the mildest flirtation must be hidden beneath countless layers of plausible deniability.

But as fine as these performances are, the movie itself is shallow and superficial. It is a lovely movie to look at, and its ultimate subject is its own beauty. There are endless loving closeups of eyes, beautiful young men (clothed), cocktail glasses, beautiful young men (partially clothed), children's shoes, and beautiful young men (naked). There are scenes and images that seem to be lifted from other highly visual filmmakers -- Almodovar and Wong-Kar Wai, among others -- but Ford has gotten only the visuals, with little of the emotional impact that those directors bring to them.

Mind you, I have nothing against beautiful young men, regardless of their state of (un)dress, but one can go overboard; after about the eighteenth interstitial shot of a man writhing sensuously underwater, I began to grow weary. (I also began to marvel that it was possible to film a man writhing underwater for so long a period without even the slightest glimpse of pubic hair, much less genitalia.) And though it is in keeping with the current gay aesthetic that all of the beautiful young men are completely shaved from the neck down, I think that choice is rather anachronistic for 1962.

If you are particularly fond of any of these actors, or if Tom Ford's aesthetic -- rather, the aesthetic that he has borrowed from better directors -- appeals to you, you may want to see this one in the theaters. Otherwise, it can certainly wait for the DVD.

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