A lot of reviewing movies is just making mental lists: good things, bad things, other movies with which the movie at hand has things in common. Besides a seventh pair of 3-D glasses, I left Alice in Wonderland last week with a pretty decent mental list of movies in which characters throw drinks at mirrors. There was nothing like that in the Tim Burton movie, which maybe shows just how indiscriminatingly eager I was to place my thoughts elsewhere for the awful third act.
It's better when a movie defies list making. Better still when a movie makes me forget about lists entirely: Only long after leaving A Single Man did I try thinking in lists as a way to fix some tentative coordinates on the movie, on the shimmery feeling it left me with.
- Is your mouth on fire, or are you just happy to see me?
I grasped for a list of other movies that elicited that same vibrating response the first time I saw them, like a gong ringing without a mighty whap or a snare drumhead rattling to a special frequency in the room. I could think of other movies with characters going about their final days on earth before suicides or other potentially life-ending events planned beforehand, other movies with variable dreamlike qualities and of course about a hundred "blank-blank-Man" titles and favorite period pictures set in an idyllic Los Angeles of yore. But nothing that seemed to whack exactly the same giant tuning fork.
George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor of English literature at a Los Angeles junior college, has calmly decided to shoot himself. Jim, his partner of 16 years—though I doubt Falconer would ever have used the term "partner;" was there such a gender-neutral, orientation-neutral, value-neutral, thoroughly bloodless term back then, for what was then almost unspeakable in public?—has recently died in a car accident while home in Colorado. George wasn't invited to the funeral. It's only thanks to a decent cousin calling with the news that he learned of the death before the funeral, and, months later, he finds himself despondent, alone and adrift. Not entirely alone: He's got his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a fellow British expat, who is in love with him and in denial about his orientation.
But he's had enough, and he decides to end it. First, though, he's got a long day of putting his affairs in order, starting with teaching his final class and clearing out his office. On his way out, for good, a young student named Kenny—wearing, it must be said, a fabulous angora sweater—accosts him. Why such a heavy scene, professor? (This campus is already crawling with beatniks and Nico look-alikes, coolly puffing away in class). The student starts getting to him—he's gorgeous, for one thing—but Falconer shies him on and drives away. What's the point? He's going to shoot himself. In fact, he's headed to the gun shop to get ammo.
Also to the liquor store for gin—he's got one last date with Charley, who even now is laying down an industrial coating of groovy 1962 makeup. Picking up the gin, George literally drives into a screen filled with a bedazzling illusion that continues to baffle long after you recognize its image as that of Janet Leigh. A Single Man makes a great deal out of eyes and mirrors, and, in fact, has the same tenor of quiet desperation that usually distinguishes the type of movie in which people hurl drinks through mirrors. No one here actually throws one, but George and Charley both seem on the verge, Charley at all times.
On his way out of the package store, George literally runs into a young Spanish hustler (Jon Kortajarena), an Iberian James Dean. George drops the gin and the bottle breaks, soaking the hustler's cigarettes, so he obligingly goes back in to buy him another pack. Then, though he hasn't lit up in years, he bums one.
George and the hustler sit in the parking lot talking. A Single Man is a period recreation, but it's glorious somehow to see this moment out in the open: something supposedly happening in 1962 that you'll never see in a movie from 1962, an actual human discussion between two explicitly gay movie characters. There's an unnatural pink light from the afternoon sun coming through the fog. Kortajarena's performance as the hustler is beautifully restrained, perfectly measured, dreamlike it its own way. All the performances are like this: small dream interactions in which everyone says just the right thing somehow.
Only the last 90 seconds of the movie broke the spell for me, and then not disastrously. I could deal with it—should even have seen it coming, perhaps. The ending also confirms a lack of depth to A Single Man, a disconnect between dialogue and character-building that should have been evident from the just-so quality of the dialogue. Perhaps those both gayer and more jaundiced than myself will take a cynical view of A Single Man and Firth's celebrated performance. At some level, A Single Man is just the kind of sexless, no-frontal nudity, not-much-kissing "gay" movie Hollywood and straight people everywhere find it easy to love—but I was too entranced to over think it at the time, and for a good bit after.
A Single Man continues at the Wilma Theatre.