Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"A Single Man" Review

"A Single Man" is your prototypical awards hound. It has rich atmosphere, assured performances, and not an ounce of originality. The debut of openly gay director Tom Ford, who previously made his name in fashion design, is a curiously impersonal film, a contented period drama about the loss of a partner, and a long hour and forty minutes. The storytelling is generally reserved and mature, but straightforward to a fault, packing shopworn scenarios and relationship dynamics that, while successful enough on their own merit, fail to elevate the material beyond each inherent cliche.

But one of the biggest reasons "A Single Man" never soars is that it suffers from some confusing and amateurish stylistic choices. Early in the film, for example, George Falconer (Colin Firth) peers out of his bathroom window. Through filter effects and desaturated imagery, we meet a family straight out of a sixties public service announcement. The actors address the camera, as though we might literally be watching some 8mm home movie. Surely these are George's memories. However, the scene, which spans multiple shots and angles, ends with a mother turning starkly to her side. We cut back to George, who ducks to avoid her gaze. Never mind that there's almost no way that she could literally have seen him through a fence, foliage, and into the dim interior of his bathroom, but the visual shorthand indicates we had moved in space and time. The perspectives from which we see of the family are totally incongruent with George's, but we're still led to believe that these two stylistically independent scenes are occurring simultaneously and within mere feet of one another.

And that series of misleading cuts is a minor gripe compared to a mistake made in the overall sequence of scenes. "A Single Man" begins with a dream in which George is beside Jim (Matthew Good), his dead lover, on a frozen river, a car overturned behind them. Jim is dead. The scene is undoubtedly the most visually striking in the film, but its placement completely undercuts the power of a following flashback, during which we witness George receiving the call informing him of Jim's demise. The scene might have been quite potent if we hadn't already been shown the body, but Ford relegates it to superfluous reiteration in showing it to us second. As a result, rather than carrying the emotional weight that it should, the scene feels languid, heavy-handed, and manipulatory.

Worse still is that Ford doesn't seem to understand his own protagonist. A contemplative discussion between George and a colleague is derailed by point-of-view shots of nearby shirtless male tennis players. The director uses close-ups and slow motion to add emphasis to each glowing Adonis, even though it doesn't makes sense for Firth's character. George is intellectual and collected, but harbors a deep sorrow, which is and should always be the root of the film. The loss of Jim weighs heavily on him, so to turn around and have him ogling others in a completely inappropriate context is beyond counter-productive; it's developmental sabotage. Had the same relationship been heterosexual, the close-ups thereby featuring women in sports bras glistening in motion, it would be clear our protagonist is an insincere pervert, which George clearly isn't. Ford employs a dangerous double standard in this imagery.

The bottom line is that "A Single Man" is a mediocre drama riding high on Oscar buzz in at best a middling awards season. The performances by Firth, Good, Nicholas Hoult, and Julianne Moore are opaque, but the content of their exchanges wants badly for substance. Their playbook passion undermines what could have been a deeply resonant human story, which is instead utterly neutered by pretension. There simply isn't one genuinely surprising or transgressive moment in the film, even in scenes that take a lighthearted approach to suicide and prostitution.

"A Single Man" may disguise itself well-enough through impressive art design as an awards-caliber film, but behind the slick veneer and A-list stars, this paint-by-numbers portrait of heartbreak is singularly underwhelming.


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