Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 20, 2018 12:32 pm 
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There is a neatness in the minimalism of the early setup scenes of Timothy McNeil's Anything, a movie long in development from the director's own stage play. Perhaps because of the stage origin, no time is wasted between locations: house, office, hospital; Mississippi, Los Angeles, Hollywood, boom! The quiet, still actor John Carroll Lynch in the lead anchors the scenes. He is Early Landry, an insurance man of the deep South, whose wife's death makes him turn suicidal, which in turn forces him into the hands of his wealthy, controlling married sister Laurette (Maura Tierney) in Brentwood, Los Angeles. To escape that comfortable but stultifying existence, and with plenty of insurance and house sale money to live better, Early nonetheless moves to a tacky but cute old cottage-style apartment complex in Hollywood- the better to meet colorful lower class people who will take him out of himself and into a gender-defying, last-ditch love affair.

There is the relief of the familiar when Early's neighbor turns out to be the campy Freda Von Rhenburg (the versatile Matt Bomer), who arrives at his door with the highly original pretext of borrowing a cup of sugar. Freda, it develops, is a transgender (though this word is never uttered) woman whose shaky livelihood is earned through prostitution, while Lynch's soft, understated manner offsets her luridness. What we have is the offbeat romance of two lonely people. Landry has dough. He doesn't get beat up by mean tricks, as Freda sometimes does. He's also sweet and kind and has the old fashioned southern manners a girl like Freda just loves to make gentle fun of. We don't really get the joke.

Anything too is sweet, and very well meaning. But it's also naive and simplistic, its musical interludes all too heavy-handed. And it enters into a growing controversy. Transgender life is something new to the general public that has become all the rage, so to speak. There is the surprising, critically acclaimed Amazon series, "Transparent." Sebastián Lelio's trans movie A Fantastic Woman is this year's Best Foreign Oscar winner. Then there is the bold and hip Chelsea Manning. And just yesterday, a Belgian film about a 15-year-old aspiring trans ballet dancer, Girl, won four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. (Girl has reminded some of the sensitive 2011 French film, Tomboy, by Céline Sciamma.) But trans people are complaining that "Cisgender" people (usually men) - a term new to us germane to this context - should not be playing transgender ones.

It might be unfair to invalidate the much admired performance of young Victor Polster, who, from what they say, plays the trans girl in Girl to perfection. Polster is a slight, ethereal young guy and a serious ballet dancer, though in real life, intending to remain male. Matt Bomer is another story, an openly gay man who has played both straight and gay men, the latter in the 2014 film version of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, and currently in the Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band. Bomer plays Freda as a campy gay man in drag. That's clearly not at all what transgender means. His performance makes us see what might be wrong with a man, gay or straight, playing a trans woman. A trans woman is not a man pretending to be a woman. Given the success with which gay men have played straight, and straight ones have played gay, it may not be so simple. But in this case, maybe it is.

However and by whomever you cast the part of Freda, it would take a heap of psychological subtlety to make Early's and Freda's relationship seem credible - and interesting. Their romance develops suddenly in a rapid montage. Early tangles with a junky couple, David (Micah Hauptmann) and Briana (Margot Bingham). There's an unseen drunken mailman who croons to remember his own lost wife, not the first bereaved spouse Early comes across in his onscreen wanderings. Freda meets up Tangerine-style with real transgender street girls who talk tough and dirty with her and question her dream of love. These scenes lack the authentic feel of Sean Baker's movie. Early makes Freda kick her pill habit, though, she points out, he's been washing down Xanax with whiskey himself. This is an awkward struggle. The action here is chaotic, and so is the editing.

Then comes still-heavier embarrassment when Early invites Laurette, her husband Ted (Christopher Thornton), and her preternaturally understanding and sympathetic son Jack (Tanner Buchanan) for an ill-starred dinner at his place to meet Freda, an event Laurette wrecks with a vulgar speech. The various sequences feel all over the place and are too much for a short film to cope with.

The touchingly well-meaning romance isn't written or filmed convincingly. Lynch's quiet, engaging performance is all that stands out.

Anything, 94 mins., debuted 17 Jun. 2017 at Los Angeles Film Festival, will be at FilmOut San Diego next month. It opened theatrically 11 May 2018 and is now showing at 4Star Theater in San Francisco. Metascore: 60%.

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