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A Single (Gorgeous) Man

6 Jan

The publicity department behind the art-house drama A Single Man wants you to know something. The message is everywhere, on posters and print ads, on the internet and in the credits, in white type on black background: this is, they say over and over, A Film by Tom Ford. And not for nothing: Tom Ford isn’t a director. He’s a fashion designer. What they really want to say, but probably had a hard time fitting on the poster, is that A Single Man is a movie of style, for people of style—that Ford’s fingerprints are on it. This is a perfectly valid marketing decision—the man does know from pretty—but it also glosses over what the film really is: gilded, certainly, but also compact and surprisingly economical. This is no vanity project, or if it is, it’s a pretty good one.

Adapted, produced, and directed by Ford, A Single Man is based on Christopher Isherwood‘s novel of the same title, about a man (George Falconer, played by Colin Firth) struggling with his own survival—as in, whether he wants to survive or not—after the sudden death of his longtime partner. First and foremost, the movie is, as one would hope, coming from the former creative director of Gucci, stunningly and lusciously visual. Its richness is twofold: it’s beautifully shot, a story told in light and image and color (or the lack thereof); additionally, everything in the movie is just so stylish. Set in the Los Angeles of the early 1960s, every object seems have sprung straight from the perfume-ad universe in which Ford undoubtedly lives. It’s all pleasingly specific: George’s spectacular mid-century home and car, his clothes (Ford’s, of course), and basically everything tangible to do with Moore’s character are spot-on for who George is, where he’s coming from, and why this kind of unattractive, chaotic grief is especially hard on him.

But for all the visual decadence of the film, Ford is diligent and disciplined with everything else: the script is spare and thoughtful, the direction feels ample yet efficient, and nothing drags. Only towards the end, in a single scene filmed in the ocean, does the movie veer into self-indulgence, with a sequence that’s over-scored and a little on the freshman-comp side of things.

As meditations on loneliness go, A Single Man is definitely sad, but never maudlin or even, ultimately, especially depressing. In fact, George’s deep and abiding grief is set alongside humor ranging from the gently poignant to the Harold and Maude-style black—it’s the humor of life, of the way things go, and both Ford and Firth show admirable light-handedness as they allow the two to coexist and interact.

Firth has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his turn as George; besides looking good for the first time since he dove into a pond after his manuscript (probably not the actual grounds for his nomination), his performance is subtle and he refuses to chew the scenery. As George’s student with possible benefits, Nicholas Hoult comes across a bit stilted (and is wearing a distractingly fuzzy sweater), but he’s also convincingly earnest in a role in which most of what’s said must be gleaned from between the lines. In any case,  it’s irrelevant once you realize that, somewhere along the line, this:

grew into this:

The weaker link is Julianne Moore as George’s consciously melodramatic friend Charley; her accent doesn’t ring true next to Firth’s, and although she isn’t terrible, she may be the only element of the film that’s visibly putting out effort onscreen. Her concentration doesn’t blend with the sea of cool around her; she stands out when she wasn’t necessarily meant to.

A Single Man is an impressive balancing act on Ford’s part: a film that is deliberately artsy, made to be savored and admired and looked at, but also a film that tells a story without stagnating or, for the most part, navel-gazing. It’s sad, but not crushing. It’s a showpiece, but not only a showpiece. It’s maybe a little pretentious, but not a lot pretentious—a perfect bull’s-eye for a movie straight out of the fashion industry.

Where the Wild Things Aren’t

26 Oct


Hipster parents, take note: your movie has arrived. Looking for something beautiful and deep with which to inform your children of the dilemma of their own youth? Trying to find something you loved once upon a time to connect them with the truths of an unplugged, un-Wiied world? Have we got something for you: the new live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are may actually be the worst kids’ movie ever, but as a work of art and a meditation on childhood, it comes across as weirdly true, or at least earnest. Trust me: if you like Spike Jonze’s movies for adults, if you’re counting down the days to baby’s first Being John Malkovich, you’re gonna love this.

This is the kind of movie that co-writers Dave Eggers and Jonze (who also directed the movie, after his pal Maurice Sendak asked nicely) would like to see—not as kids, but now, as artsy, occasionally pretentious adults. It’s gorgeous and thoughtful—a brainy and beautiful treatise on childhood that no child in its right mind would want to sit through. Given the context, that alone should make it obviously, case-closed terrible (who adapts a kids’ book in a way that kids will obviously not like or even get?), but somehow it isn’t—inappropriate, maybe, but not entirely dismissable.

Ironically, Eggers and Jonze have clearly put a lot of thought into their portrayal of childhood, and they’ve done an excellent job of making Max not a movie kid. Pretty much everything about him is spot-on: his dialogue, his responses to trouble, his tendency to spitball fantasies/lies, and his love of a good dirt-clod battle all channel real boys (possibly Eggers and Jonze themselves) rather than stereotypical, scripted ones. Rookie actor Max Records helps them out by being miraculously un-self-conscious while also owning Max’s emotions and experience completely. The combination is sometimes stunning and sometimes almost overwhelming—for example, the moment of misbehavior that sparks Max’s departure from home is genuinely, surprisingly intense for both Max and his mother, not to say the audience.

Where things go off the rails is with the Wild Things: when Max shows up in their land, he walks into their deeply adult set of conflicts, the kinds of subtle interpersonal issues that you’d see in any office or suburban social circle. It’s boring, and not just to kids; there’s a reason we go to the movies, and the mundane manipulations and passive aggression of grown-ups isn’t it. It’s an unexpected interpretation of the book: here, the Wild Things represent the adult world and not Max’s inner crazies, or childhood itself—again, probably an interpretation that’s more interesting (nominally) to adults than to the average kid. He becomes their king and leads them in all manner of wild-rumpus hijinks, but in the end, it’s not just that he’s tired of wild living, or that he misses his mom. He’s the leader of a bunch of predictable, self-serving adults, and that, he decides, sucks. Maybe being a kid for awhile is better than taking on the adult world.  Maybe he should just go have some dinner. He goes home. (Strangely, Max’s departure from the Wild Things is truly poignant—as un-engaging as their group dynamic is, the Wild Things still pack an emotional punch. This is why I can’t write Eggers and Jonze’s work off completely.) 

All flaws considered, it still isn’t exactly forgettable—it’s too Jonze-ian for that, too keyed into thought and especially into beauty. It’s stunning, visually, all spare and lens-flare-y, a weird mix of modernity and old-school lo-fi technique, from the miniature wooden Land of the Wild Things to the Wild Things themselves. In fact, the Wild Things are mostly “real” but assisted by technology: they’re people inside beautiful, ornate monster suits, with seamless and subtle CGI faces added in post-production. It’s mysterious, hard to tell the difference between the tangible and the intangible—and maybe that’s what Jonze was going for all along.

Basically, this movie fulfills every fear that nobody had about adapting Where the Wild Things Are: it isn’t cutesy, it isn’t simple, and it doesn’t fail the theme and aesthetic of the book except for the part about being, well, wild. It’s both troubling and a relief: shouldn’t an adaptation of a beloved children’s book be appropriate for children? Yet, if the movie had been studio-slick, steeped in special effects and Shrekly sarcasm, it would have been an entirely different, and probably more offensive, kind of failure.