Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 11, 2004 3:31 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
No worries: no character development

Two little boys grow up into big boys and are still inseparable; they wind up living in a New York apartment with an older woman who’s emotionally strung out on both of them. One of the guys is gay; the other? — We don’t quite know. Nor do we know who (if anyone) gets the best out of the original family unit that develops as they raise a kid one has fathered and go to live in the country — till they learn that they must all part.

Well. What is this, Les Enfants Terribles lite, with housekeeping? It’s hard to say, and that’s what keeps you watching. There is real charm and freshness in the story – at least till it very slowly fizzles out.

First-time director Michael Mayer’s A Home at the End of the World, adapted by Michael Cunningham from his novel, lacks the high concept pretensions of Stephen Daldry’s much celebrated 2002 screen version of Cunningham's The Hours. This new film is a smaller production, even with the likes of Robin Wright Penn and macho pretty boy Colin Farrell in an unusual gentle, bisexual role as Bobby, the linchpin of the ménage à trois. And there aren’t any fifty-year leaps nor must we put up with Meryl Streep as a New York matron, Nicole Kidman impersonating Virginia Wolf with a putty nose, or Julianne Moore doing her neurotic housewife schtick in Fifties drag.

As in The Hours Cunningham has again thought in three chronological chunks but this time they’re more modest ones, dealt out in order without shuffling the deck. The manchild Bobby is first seen in 1967 as a young boy learning a precociously exploratory and drug-friendly lifestyle from his rakish, sexy teenage brother -- who promptly dies in a freak accident at a party. He has served his brief purpose, which is to teach Bobby that life is safe and fun, even if you’re high as a kite on acid. Cunningham polishes off characters with alacrity and has soon made Bobby an orphan.

The teenage actors who play the next stage of Bobby and his new bosom pal Jonathan, set in 1974, turn out to be more interesting and their dialogue more focused than the characters ever seem later. The film’s signature moment shows Bobby (Erik Smith) luring Jonathan’s mom (Sissy Spacek, channeling Sissy Spacek) into getting high and dancing with them with the opening line, “we’re all beautiful, lonely people here. . .” The teenage Bobby is the archetypical provocative charmer as he smoothes over the awkwardness in this scene when he and his pal are caught smoking dope. The 1974 Jonathan (Harris Allen) has the complex quality of somebody who’s simultaneously cute, nerdy, and gay. Even though the relationship continues eight years later, the more homoerotic moments come here in the experimental sexy Seventies.

But '67 and '74 are mere stepping stones on the way to the main section: 1982. Jonathan has now moved to Manhattan and lives in an intimate but non-sexual relationship with an older, arty fag hag fashion designer named Clare (Robin Wright Penn). The twenty-something Bobby has been sent out on his own by his adoptive parents, Jonathan’s mom and dad, and turns up on Clare and Jonathan’s doorstep.

Some who’ve read the novel say it develops the character of the adult Bobby better and more consistently. It would have to. Colin Farrell’s Bobby unfortunately isn’t up to the confidence level of Erik Smith’s young tempter channeling his dead brother and comes across as a cuddly dork, a mere cipher doomed to be coifed and fucked passively like a five-foot-ten Ken doll. He’s such a quivering nonentity that he actually does appear to quiver in some scenes. He’s a doll and nothing but a doll, neither gay nor fully straight, more asexual than ambisexual despite fathering the baby on command. The adult Bobby is a woefully underwritten character, and since the plot revolves around him, the movie progressively loses touch with its promising opening sketches and turns into a bland nonentity – even the reported frontal nude scene of Farrell having been snipped out. The newcomer Dallas Roberts as the adult Jonathan, who’s pining for Bobby while having unsatifying but constant, risky sex with guys from bars and discos, has a fresh look and a natural screen presence; Robin Wright Penn is strong in her role. There’s no need to find fault with the actors. The trouble is in the writing – which aside from gaps in character development fails to establish 1982 very precisely, with characters repeating phrases like “no worries” that have gained currency only recently.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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