Originally Reviewed – 2/23/2010
At the risk of sounding overly emo, I love myself a sad, depressing movie. While summer blockbusters, explosions and comedies keep the little boy in me grinning, for me, there’s nothing like watching a film that pushes the right buttons deep within, eliciting an emotional response. Friends of mine often say that I like depressing movies and while that’s not always the case, I can’t say they are wrong. Nothing wrong with curling up on the couch with a bag of Cheeze-Its, moping about with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and if I have to turn in my guy card because of this, so be it.
So, when a movie is about a British literature professor who’s trying to find joy in his life after losing his partner of 16 years in a car accident, I say sign me up. Never mind it’s being directed by first time director Tom Ford. When you have talent like Colin Firth and Julianne Moore starring, how could it go wrong?
The answer is simple. It goes horribly wrong when you rely on contrivances to force an emotional response. It fails when you introduce cliché characters that do nothing to move the story along. It sinks when you tack on a hack ending because you’re not brave enough to allow the characters to arc on their own. In short, a good story can be ruined when you simply don’t know how to direct a movie.
Wow…that last paragraph was harsh, so let me soften it a bit by saying there is a fair amount of good in this film. As every reviewer has mentioned, Colin Firth is wonderful in the starring role. Never once does he overact or play the part too strong. Firth’s performance is patient, controlled and connects with the audience in a meaningful way. The film also shines when Firth flashes back to moments with his partner. In interviews, Tom Ford mentioned that he wanted to add these moments as it reminded him of time spent with his partner and that was good move. These quiet moments of interaction, which include reading together at home and laying on the beach, are some of the best in the film and really cement the relationship between the two characters. Julianne Moore is also very good in the film, although I felt she was underused.
It all sounds great, right? Why the bashing? Keep reading…
The main fault in the movie centers on the absolute pretentiousness of the filmmaking. Making an artistic film is one thing, but boring is boring and pretentious is pretentious, no matter how you slice it. Do we really need the slow pull into a budding flower? Is the owl launching into flight at a moment of personal revelation really necessary? There’s a fine line between artful touches and being “too cool” for the room. While Tom Ford does have an excellent eye for staging, imagery and shot design (he is a professional photographer and fashion designer after all), his additions are hackneyed and unnecessary. Ultimately, A Single Man is defeated by Tom Ford’s insistence on being too arty for his own good.
And you know what the real crime is? HE DIDN’T NEED TO BE! Art films are just that…artfulness for the sake of art. Generally, films of that type work well enough because aspects like acting and character development are developed through the artistry of the filmmaking, not necessarily the actors on screen. Sure, you need a stomach for that sort of film, and there is a market for it. In A Single Man, you have excellent actors working their tails off. There is no need for the aforementioned owl because Firth’s state of mind is written all over his face. To me, nothing is worse than watching good acting get bogged down by bad, or in this case, over fluffed directing. If this were an art piece, fine, but this is a drama and the actors are pulling their weight. There’s no need to artificially heighten the drama.
Directorial choices aside, A Single Man falters in other areas as well. Firth and Moore aside, the surrounding actors don’t bring much to the table and the film features an ending that literally made me scream, “Hack!”, through my clenched teeth. Not to ruin the ending, which I’m almost tempted to do so you have no excuse to see it, but it seemed tacked on and gutless.
In the end, A Single Man is a prime example of opportunity squandered. The film features a moving story featuring excellent acting that’s brought to a screeching halt by a director Tom Ford’s insistence on being arty when the subject matter didn’t need to be. To be fair to a director I’ve really taken a dump on, you can tell this was a labor of love, and I respect that, however, a 99 minute film shouldn’t feel like it took two and a half to get through. Hopefully Tom Ford learns to trust his actors to bring the drama rather than relying on photographic cliché’s as he truly has the vision of an artist but lacks the filmmaking chops to see it through.
Score – 50%