A Single Man

Life IS worth living—Some dreamy boy might flirt with you!
Released: 
2009
Director: 
Tom Ford
Starring: 
Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult
The Setup: 
Man still mourning the death of his partner plans suicide.
Discussion: 

This film comes with a bit of backstory, which is that it is the first film by Tom Ford, fashion designer and former head of some fashion house or other, who decided it’s time to direct films, and financed this largely himself. It is an adaptation of a late Christopher Isherwood novel that I read way back when, and didn’t think that much of, although others consider it “a defining work of modern gay literature.” So here we go!

We open with images of Colin Firth as George Falconer floating aimlessly in water. Then he approaches a car crash where his lover and their dog lie dead, kisses the corpse, then wakes in his bed. It is 1962 and radio reports remind us of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is eight months after the death of George’s lover, Jim, in a car accident while away visiting his family. George lives in an amazing glass house in Los Angeles. He calls his friend Charley, played by Julianne Moore, and tells her he will come by for dinner after all. Then he gets out a gun and slips it into his bag.

Along the way we’ve had frequent flashbacks to George going over to Charley’s house the night he received the news of Jim’s death, and his childhood. He goes to school, where he teaches literature, and gives an impromptu lecture about how we all live in fear, with special coded section about gays, at which point we cut again and again to two gay guys sitting in front, one gorgeous one decidedly not, as though to explicitly say “See? Not everyone in this movie is going to be utterly gorgeous.” But let’s get back to the gorgeous people: student Kenny, with piercing blue eyes and an angora sweater, and his chain-smoking girlfriend who looks like a baby Claudia Schiffer. She has two major abilities in this movie: smoke and give intense looks.

Kenny is clearly intrigued by George in more than a scholarly way, and essentially becomes a mini-stalker, always showing up and making loaded comments and casting meaningful looks, and literally lurking around every corner. By the way, throughout the course of the movie, on about eight different occasions, different people tell George that he looks terrible, although the newly slimmed-down Firth has never looked more radiant. Even in the world of the movie, he looks healthy and well-rested and impeccably dressed. Grief has also apparently rendered him unspeakably attractive, given the huge amount of people who come on to him during the course of this single day. One is a gorgeous Spanish man hustler outside the liquor store, seemingly waiting for someone exactly like George to drop by. They smoke together in front of a giant poster for Psycho. By the way, several scenes are desaturated to the point of approaching sepia or black and white.

George buys bullets. Kenny shows up again. He takes all his stuff out of his safe deposit box. Kenny shows up again. He goes home and arranges all of his papers and keys for easy post-death processing, and has a semi-comic scene where he practices putting the gun in his mouth, but keeps fussing with this or that. Then he goes over to Charley’s.

Charley is a woman who George had an affair with way back when, but it didn’t work out, and she became his lifelong friend. She is now divorced and bitter and makes herself up for George’s visit apparently five hours before he is expected, and has a friend in booze. They have dinner during which she laments her sad state—married twice with kids and husband who abandoned her—and asks if George ever wished they’d end up together, which he definitely did not. She says they could be together now, and he could have a “REAL relationship,” which causes George to explode about how his relationship with Jim WAS real. The movie suddenly springs to life in this scene, making one realize how monotonous the previous hour had been, and causing me to think “At last someone who can act—but wait a minute, we’re talking about Colin Firth, who can certainly act.” It’s just a testament to how dulled-down the rest of the movie is.

SPOILERS > > >
George goes home to finally do the deed, when there are more and more complications, and a mysterious rustling in the bushes outside his house. I wonder who that could be? He goes out to the bar where he first met Jim [cue flashback], and who should be showing up moments later, but stalker Kenny. They talk, then go take a nude swim, wherein George bumps his head somehow and they return to George’s house. Kenny constantly calls George “Sir” and asks leading flirty questions like “Is that an order?” when George tells him to get another beer. I found myself distinctly uncomfortable during all the Kenny scenes, for a multitude of little reasons: he’s a pushy little stalker, and I found his continued attentions and sexual insinuations fairly creepy, he is George’s student, and he’s just a little too gorgeous in a pretty-boy fashion-model way, which is also distancing, as the tone of the movie elides over his creepiness [he is lurking by night in the bushes outside George’s house, recall] with a tone of “But he’s SO GORGEOUS!” and also because you know this film is by Tom Ford, and you find yourself rooting that Ford would succeed in making his serious movie and get beyond the gorgeous-guy bullshit.

Kenny gets naked. George seemingly falls asleep. He wakes at three in the morning in bed, the nude Kenny asleep in the couch, with George’s gun at his side. George takes it and returns to the bedroom, but we no longer have any fear that he might kill himself. Then—sudden heart attack! George falls to the floor—more water imagery, vision of Jim coming and kissing him [not unlike the way he kissed Jim into death at the beginning]—and he dies! The end.

Now, the whole element of the gun and George killing himself at the end was added for the movie—which in one way was wise, as the movie would have no dramatic tension whatsoever without it—but it leaves an unfortunate wrinkle at the end when George decides not to kill himself—and dies anyway, moments later. Which can make someone like me spend the final moments, when I’m supposed to be all moved and choked up and stuff, instead saying “Holy shit, it’s like Final Destination! He decided not to die—but death got him anyway!” Which I don’t think is what Ford was going for.

But if you need to add a gun to add some dramatic tension, that might serve as a clue that your source is too literary to make a very good movie—making it the second novel in a few weeks, after The Road, that is just not really suited to be a movie. One can see how having George die at the end of the book could be a successful literary conceit—the main tale is full of small, low-key moments and memories, all of which gain special significance at the end, when you look back and realize that this was George’s last day alive. The introduction of the gun successfully adds dramatic tension to the beginning [needed in a movie, not necessarily a novel], but distorts the ending in the strange way described above. Oh dear, I think it speaks once more to the general trend of diminished literacy, and the lack of understanding that the experience of reading a novel is fundamentally different than that of watching a movie.
< < < SPOILERS END

The movie was very good for a first-time director: the scenes flow consistently, it has a distinctive look, and never seems even slightly unprofessional. And I admire Ford for taking on such a serious and introspective project. But for me it was just emotionally and dramatically inert. I was not involved with George’s character or his grief. It was just kind of a long, undistinguished series of events, which suddenly came to life when Julianne Moore came on screen. But once that scene was over [ONE scene, although the trailer makes it seem as though she's in the entire film], my involvement with the movie was also over, and I spent the last few scenes completely checked out, thinking “Will you just kill yourself, already?” and “Christ, will this movie ever fucking end?” Again—not what I think Ford was going for.

So yeah, I just wasn’t that involved in Firth’s performance, which others are beside themselves over, and never got very involved with his character, which rendered the movie just a long series of events, and left me lots of time to nit-pick about how everyone’s telling George he looks awful when he clearly looks amazing, and how, despite how awful he supposedly looks, he’s apparently some kind of sex magnet. And kind of unfortunately—especially as it’s impossible to divorce yourself from the fact that Tom Ford directed this movie—one spends the entire time evaluating how he is managing the mixture of style and substance. Which makes it not totally fortunate that he picked material that leaves one with the impression that its key message is: “Life is worth living… because oh my god, like, some dreamy boy might come on to you!”

The friend I attended with likes to sit and read the credits, so when I met him coming out of the bathroom, he said with glee “Mr. Firth’s costumes provided by… wait for it… wait for it…”

Should you watch it: 

Truth be told, you could miss it and not miss much.