Saturday, September 10, 2016

Notes on Gay Life - Looking: The Movie

The English writer-director Andrew Haigh stepped into the spotlight at the end of last year with 45 Years. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play Geoff and Kate, a couple on the cusp of their forty-fifth anniversary whose relationship is shaken by the discovery of the body of the woman he lived with before he became involved with Kate. She disappeared on a hike in the Swiss Alps; her corpse is revealed in a melting glacier, and the thought of her preserved after all these years as she was when he lost her – and, it turns out, pregnant with his baby – prompts Geoff to revisit the life he had before he met Kate and imposes distance between them. 45 Years, which Haigh adapted from David Constantine’s story “In Another Country,” is like a classic film from the British New Wave era of the late fifties and sixties: thoughtful, literate, unconventional, understated and impeccably acted. (Rampling won most of the praise and the Oscar nomination, but good as she is, Courtenay is astonishing.)

In fact, 45 Years was an unusual project for Haigh, all of whose other works has been gay-themed. His previous movies were Greek Pete (2009), a documentary portrait of a rent boy, and Weekend (2011), about a footloose gay man (Tom Cullen) whose one-night stand with a stranger (Chris New) turns unexpectedly into a relationship. Weekend was my introduction to Haigh, and though it’s not up to 45 Years I was struck by some of the qualities that drew critics and filmgoers to the later picture, particularly its unblinkered approach to the subject matter, its unsentimental treatment of the characters, the intricacy of the detail and the intimacy of the acting. And Haigh wrote five and directed ten of the eighteen episodes of HBO’s half-hour TV series Looking, a buddy drama created by Michael Lannan about three gay friends living in present-day San Francisco: Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a video game designer in his late twenties (and the show’s protagonist); Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), his college roommate and an aspiring photographer; and Dom (Murray Bartlett), who’s about a decade older and is toiling in the restaurant business with the hopes of finally open his own place. Looking was one of the pleasant surprises of 2014, but it was short-lived: a second season failed to drum up enough viewers to encourage the network to pick it up for a third. (And season two was somewhat disappointing: as is often the case when a TV show with a borderline audience is renewed, Looking jacked up the soap opera element in an effort to make it more commercial.) HBO’s compensation to its fans for canceling the series was a TV movie, recently aired, that Haigh wrote and directed, and I think it’s just as good as 45 Years.

Looking: The Movie returns to the characters a year later, when Patrick, now living in Denver forty-five minutes from his parents (with whom he has a difficult relationship), returns to SF for Agustin’s wedding to Eddie (Daniel Franseze), the HIV-positive teen counselor he began seeing in season two. (Eddie is outsize, both physically and in personality, and he entered Agustin’s life when it had begun to unravel, romantically and professionally; their unpredictable partnership, which Agustin fell into, had the effect of grounding him.) Though Patrick has persuaded himself that he went back to Colorado for a fresh start and a better job, it becomes increasingly clear in the course of the movie, to us and to him, that he ran away from the mess he’d made of his affairs. At the beginning of season one he initiated a relationship with Richie (Raúl Castillo), a sincere, emotionally committed Latino barber. (In its early stages their romance ran up against the jealousy and class prejudices of the other Latino in Patrick’s life, the resolutely middle-class Agustin.) But then he cheated on Richie with his boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey), and their romance, covert in its early stages, resulted in the break-up of Kevin’s long-term relationship and eventually in his setting up house with Patrick. Or almost: when Patrick discovered that Kevin had never maintained a monogamous lifestyle he walked out before he’d even unpacked his suitcases, despite Kevin’s too-late protests that he was willing to try monogamy for Patrick’s sake.

Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo in Looking: The Movie

Looking: The Movie
deals somewhat with Agustin’s pre-wedding jitters and peripherally with Dom’s celibacy (he’s been entirely focused on his restaurant) and the decision of his friend Doris (Lauren Weedman) and her boy friend Malik (Bashir Salahuddin) to try to have a baby. (Weedman, a remarkably naturalistic performer, has a touching moment when Doris admits to Dom that she’s been slow about telling him because she’d always thought he’d be the father of her child; viewers may have forgotten – I had – that she was in love with him for years before finally accepting the fact that he was inaccessible.) But it’s really about Patrick, who reconnects with both Richie and Kevin in an attempt to bring closure to his turbulent time in SF before he retreated. He’s managed to stay friends with Richie, whose current squeeze, a journalist named Brady (Chris Perfetti), can’t resist being caustic and high-handed around him. But his only contact with Kevin is the occasional royalty check for a game they co-designed, and he’s decided that’s a tie he should cut for good. So he invites Kevin out for coffee, and their scene, in which Kevin calls him to account for refusing to give him a chance to live up to Patrick’s expectations and running out on him, is a marvel in both the writing and the acting. Tovey – whom I first saw, along with several other gifted young English actors who have since become mainstays, in The History Boys – gives a single-scene performance that comprises many layers. Kevin comes to their reunion with his anger at Patrick barely concealed behind a screen of good fellowship and his barely patched-up broken heart on his sleeve, and though he reports that he re-engaged with his old boy friend after Patrick left town, the conversation isn’t five minutes old before he breaks down and demands to know if Patrick ever loved him. Patrick and his pals try to be honest with one another, but as with all close friends, they balance that honesty with other kinds of supportiveness and bank on being able to judge the vulnerability of the person they’re advising – how far they can go before their advice becomes too painful. The jilted lover Kevin has no such restraints. When he points out that Patrick has a chronic tendency to run away, it’s impossible to separate out his first-hand observations from his injuries at Patrick’s hands, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Their interaction shows both of them in very different lights from earlier episodes of the series: Patrick has become more contemplative, Kevin less frantic and much sadder. He’s lost the impulsive jackrabbit quality he once had, and Patrick – not just in this scene, but throughout the film – seems much more than a year older than the last time we saw him. At the end of the scene, on the street, Kevin gives him a farewell hug and then, murmuring, “One last time,” kisses him on the lips, and the moment pierces you to the heart.

I liked Groff the first time I saw him, on Broadway in the musical Spring Awakening, but the work he does in Looking: The Movie catapults him to another plane. The whole company – including Tyne Daly in a very sweet cameo as the justice of the peace who marries Agusten and Eddie – shines. Michael Rosen has a fine few scenes as a young man who picks Patrick up at a bar on his first night back, and Perfetti, with the help of Haigh’s remarkably adult dialogue, makes Brady’s self-righteousness count as an expression of his own terror that Patrick has returned to San Francisco just so he can steal Richie away again. Brady is so vulnerable here that what made him insufferable, his priggishness, seems to melt away. Haigh doesn’t believe in good guys and bad guys. He deals in drama that’s as far from melodrama as movies get.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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