I saw the trailer for this in front of Mister Lonely, and it went on my list right away, as it has Julianne Moore as a viciously crazy and destructive mother who meddles in and ruins the life of her gay son. How am I to resist that? And then we find out that it is by the director of Swoon. At that point, even the mediocre reviews couldn’t keep me away. Turns out that if they had, I wouldn’t have missed out on too much.
We open in 1946 London, with Barbara Bakeland, her husband Brooks, and their infant son Tony. Brooks’ grandfather invented Bakelite, the very first plastic, and Brooks never really made much of his life except to live off the earnings. Barbara is a failed artist and failed actress, and has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. While at dinner at the Stork Club, she asks Brooks if he wants to schtupp the woman next to him, then waves down a car and gets in with the three guys, coming home early in the morning.
There are more embarrassing events in Tony’s youth—such as his mother asking him to read from de Sade or their dinner guests—but things heat up in Spain when Tony is about 20. He has a nice sexy Spanish boyfriend, and they get involved with this pretty girl, and before you know it, Dad Brooks has run off with his girlfriend. Mom has this odd gay companion who is soon sleeping with Tony—and then with mom and Tony at the same time. Ah, the late sixties.
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Then Mom tries to kill herself. Then she and Tony have a little discussion while she’s naked in the tub, and she asks him to put salve on the wounds on her wrists.
Then they move to London in 1972. Tony has become obsessed with finding the dog collar that belonged to their first pet, and that he has kept all these years. He is quite sure she took it, because she doesn’t think it appropriate for a grown man to hold on to such things. There is a brief interlude in which he says he writes his journal backward, so no one can read it. One day she tells him she likes his suit, tells him he’d better not hang around a certain person “if he wants to be a man,” then, as though to help him in said process, hops up on his lap and has sex with him. She then jerks him off until he comes. He then becomes obsessed with finding that dog collar, finds it, knows her mother hid it—and stabs her! She dies, the movie ends, and we get a few extra titles. Turns out Tony went to an institution for a while, was released into his grandmother’s care, and within a week, stabbed her! He ends up killing himself with a plastic bag, which is supposed to be highly ironic, since the Baklands invented the first plastic. And that’s the end.
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Although it has many salacious elements, they remain just that: elements. Somehow it just remains a series of consecutive events, all of which sketch at a picture but never really fill it in. We don’t really sense the development of the characters or get much of a sense of the various phases they go through, they just do this action and then that action, and we are left to guess at their mental state. This becomes more noticeable by the end in which one of the characters has apparently gone quite insane, while we thought they were just somewhat eccentric. Similarly, certain suicide attempts one just takes in as a fact, but the story lacks the rolling ups and downs of character that make these events seem organic to what’s happening in their lives. We just sit back and watch the events unfold.
Everyone is typically fine. It’s too bad that the movie didn’t include more connecting tissue between its events, because Julianne Moore has a field day with her fun role, yet the sketchy nature of the narrative keeps it just a series of outrageous events. Eddie Redmayne as Tony is quite good, and physically embodies the awkward, oppressed gay boy who is only allowed to express himself in certain ways and is wholly quashed by his mother. Yet somehow, it just never comes to life. It should be a vital picture of a struggling gay son oppressed by a monstrous mom, but instead it’s just a series of events that we view from a distance. You could see the movie, or you could just read a catalogue of the outrageous things that happen in it, and have about the same experience.
Won’t hurt, but ultimately it’s just not that great.