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Review: “A Single Man” (2009)

“Looking in the mirror staring back at me isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament,” George Falconer (Colin Firth) calmly notes, gazing at his reflection after he’s put on the crisp suit, hair and face he wears for the world outside his Los Angeles home. His manner and tone are disconcerting, for the predicament he’s in is not one simply solved. The sudden death of his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode, radiating warmth in his few scenes), in a car accident has damaged George in ways that cannot be mended. Waking up is physically painful. Grief has taken him to a place that he cannot come back from and doesn’t want to.

George Falconer, with his unwrinkled shirts and mute anguish, would present a challenge to any actor. Colin Firth is not “any actor.” From the uptight Mark Darcy to the repressed Adrian LeDuc, Firth’s career has been defined by characters who operate under a “better in than out” philosophy: They believe emotions to be unnecessary inconveniences to others. George Falconer puts them all to shame; it is the role of a lifetime for Firth, a challenge that demands control and also sadness and even humor. Firth not only rises to the occasion but surpasses it, shaping George into a man whose life force drained out the moment he got the call his soulmate was dead. In Firth we see a man looking at the world, as singer/songwriter Mike Doughty wrote, from the bottom of a well. Life has become small, closed-in, while the world above is expansive and out of reach and also bright, so bright he wants to shut his eyes to it.

George does indeed, at the beginning of Tom Ford’s overly stylized adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, decide to shut out the world. Unable to grieve openly for Jim — this is the ’60s, not a time of free expression for gays, lesbians and transgendered people — he intends to kill himself. The day we meet him is to be the last day of his life. He’s purchased bullets for his gun, removed everything from his safe deposit box, picked out his suit, laid all his effects end to end on the kitchen table. In short, he has planned everything to the last detail (this leads to an unexpectedly funny sequence involving Firth testing a sleeping bag as an effective way to shoot himself without spattering the walls with blood). A few things happen that threaten to interrupt his plan: a drunken dalliance with former lover Charley (Julianne Moore, overwrought and underwhelming), a fellow Brit who marinates herself in gin to relive her younger days; a liquor store encounter with Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), a chiseled Spaniard hustler; and several poignant moments with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), one of George’s sharper university students who senses his professor’s need for companionship.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that first-time director Ford puts food on the table as a fashion designer, since “A Single Man” is awash with “style.” This is both a compliment and a criticism because Ford has a tendency to stylize many scenes within an inch of their lives. Ford has a sharp eye for color (the contrast between  George’s old, happy life vs. his stifling new one is gorgeous), but everyone in this world is a little too attractive, a little too perfectly coiffed and attired. There are a few too many close-up shots of eyes and eyebrows meant, no doubt, to be “arty.” Ford seems unwilling or unable to embrace any kind of imperfection. So Ford’s vision sometimes seems like art for art’s sake, a perfectly coordinated string of sets and costumes without much genuine feeling to ground them. The director has made it difficult for his actors to stand out.

Yet Firth manages to cut through all this calculated beauty with his aching performance, undoubtedly the best he’s ever given and one of the great cinematic performances period. Firth gives soul and heartbreaking depth to a man, played by anyone else, that we might dismiss as haughty, standoffish and superficial. More than that, he gives a bone-weary face to the grimmer aspects of universal human experience — death, grief — that won’t soon fade from memory.

Grade: B+

Review: “The Lookout” (2007)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes measure of a life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt measures life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

Too often thrillers, in the hands of the wrong directors, make one of two mistakes. First, the pacing is too fast, the action too furious, which leaves the characters undeveloped and forces viewers to watch a series of things blow up. Or the pacing is too slow, the action too sporadic, which allows the characters to develop but leaves viewers too bored to care. “The Lookout,” a gripping character study directed impressively by Scott Frank, makes neither of these mistakes. The briskly-paced film, which features another stunning performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, starts off with a literal bang and never lets up … until the slightly deflated end.

The film’s opening credits give viewers a brief introduction to Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot college hockey star who’s got everything, including a gorgeous girlfriend (Laura Vandervoort). But a split-second error in judgment violently separates his life into “before” and “after”: Pratt crashes his convertible into a stalled farm combine. The resulting traumatic brain injury ends his career and his charmed existence.

Fast-forward four years. Pratt, now a night janitor at a no-name Kansas City bank, has no life to speak of: He has no girlfriend, his only friend is his sarcastic but kind-hearted blind roommate, Lewis (superbly acted by Jeff Daniels), and he has to record everything he does in a pocket notebook to make it through each day. His memory sequencing problems, mood swings and disinhibition make him reluctant to interact with anyone, including his well-to-do family. Into his gray world comes Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), an ex-classmate who meets Pratt at a bar and tells fumbling loner he once looked up to him – he even dated Pratt’s older sister. The serpentine Spargo plays on Pratt’s insecurities and introduces him to “Luvlee Lemons,” an eager, attractive exotic dancer (Isla Fisher). It’s then Spargo reveals his ulterior motive: He wants Pratt to help him rob the bank whose floors he mops every night. Set all this intrigue against the blank, colorless, obliterating wintery Midwestern landscape — captured wonderfully by cinematographer Alar Kivilo — and “The Lookout” becomes as chilling as it is captivating.

What’s more intriguing is the way Frank, a screenwriter-turned-rookie-director, lets his characters take their time whittling away at our nerves. Goode banishes all memory of his icky-sweet role in “Chasing Liberty” here. His Gary possesses an oily, slightly menacing charm: He’s got a near-psychic (or sociopathic) ability to read people, discover their weaknesses and exploit them for personal gain. And what’s frightening is that he’s a downright likable fellow, the sort of chap who’d buy a round for strangers at the local dive bar. It’s a layered, commendable performance. Creepy, too, is Greg Dunham as Spargo’s right-hand man – he has but four lines of dialogue and exudes ungodly menace. The kind that, if you saw him in line in front of you at Bi-Lo, would make you pick up and move somewhere far away. Like Timbuktu. 

Daniels more than holds his own as Lewis, a wannabe restaurateur (he’s even picked out a name: “Lew’s Your Lunch”) who looks out for Pratt but never coddles him. His comic timing is dead-on (prepare to cackle when he tells Luvlee how he lost his sight), but better is his ability to show Lewis as a no-nonsense man who can peg a phony in a heartbeat. And Gordon-Levitt provides yet more reasons why he’s this generation’s finest working actor. His work here is unshowy and almost heartbreaking in its simplicity. As Pratt, he extracts maximum emotion from the character’s minimal dialogue (observe the wrenching clip where he tells his bewildered father “I can’t play chess anymore”). He looks and sounds like a man on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of guilt and unfulfilled dreams.

Such commendable acting doesn’t disguise the frustrating flaws in “Lookout.” Fischer’s character does a disappearing act that’s puzzling. The robbery feels oddly out of place, since Frank spends so much time letting us know his characters. And the closing moments are too neat, too simple. Still, it’s not enough to ruin “The Lookout,” which is filled with characters who are anything but simple. 

Grade: B-