Cyrus, A Single Man, Life with Father

Small Movies, Big Movie

I watched three movies in the past week, two of them new and one of them 63 years old. The two new ones, Cyrus and A Single Man, have pretty much vanished from my consciousness like breath on a mirror. The old one, Life With Father, is still running through my mind.

Cyrus and A Single Man aren’t much alike, at least superficially. The former is about a lonely slob (John C. Reilly) who finally meets a great woman (Marisa Tomei) at a party, but finds his relationship cockblocked by her clinging, obese, devious 20-year-old son (Jonah Hill). The film sets up this kind of creepy incestuous situation but then chickens out and dribbles away, maybe because the actors did a lot of improvising. It’s also damaged by the fact that you have to spend an hour and a half looking at Reilly and Hill, not the prettiest of specimens, and wondering how the hell a woman like Marisa Tomei got mixed up with them.

The latter is about a professor (Colin Firth) struggling to get over the death of his longtime male companion. He plans to commit suicide, and during his last day on earth, he encounters his old lover and best friend (Julianne Moore) and a flirtatious student (Nicholas Hoult) who wants to get closer to him. Directed by fashion photographer Tom Ford, it’s a meticulously designed GQ photo spread come to life, with the camera lingering endlessly on impossibly beautiful male faces. Firth is great at suggesting the gravitational pull of enormous grief, though, and Moore is funny and inventive as always.

What they do have in common is their scripts. Both keep close to a tight little interpersonal situation, with a troubled protagonist slowly fighting his way to some sort of meaningful connection with others. The dialogue is functional and uninspired, and you’d be hard pressed to remember a single line from either. Both depend on the actors to give them depth and make the audience give a damn about the selfish, closed-off characters.

Life With Father couldn’t be more different. It was based on a play, the longest running non-musical play in Broadway history (still). Set at the turn of the century, it’s a big semi-ironic valentine to the Victorian era, with loud blustering supremely know-it-all Father (William Powell) subtly thwarted at every turn by sweet, not-as-rattlebrained-as-she-seems Mother (Irene Dunne). It was shot in bright Technicolor (though the prints are very bad, since it’s never been restored). The performances are very “big” — this was a hit movie based on a hit play, and the actors sock every line out into the depths of the cavernous movie palaces of the 1940s. The script is a beautiful piece of work, right down to the last line… a funny, clever laugh-with-a-tear-in-it that the entire movie has carefully been setting up.

Life With Father isn’t a good movie, exactly, but it’s like a pyramid or an old ornate bank building: an imposing example of dedication and craftsmanship that isn’t possible anymore. It’s really built. Nobody has the time, money, or theatrical know-how to create something like that anymore, and even if they wanted to, it’s gone way out of style. The movie was made for (and reached) a wide popular audience, so it’s broad and obvious, but the clueless man vs. loving wife stuff that worked in 1947 still works. And the timbre of William Powell’s voice is still ringing in my ears.

Cyrus and A Single Man, like most movies now, are made for fragmented audience segments — in this case a few hundred mumblecore fans, or the gay-friendly NPR-listening art house crowd. You either like them or you’ve never heard of them, but either way their lack of inclusiveness is part of what makes them so worthless. Years of test marketing and focus groups have done this damage, and not just to movies but to politics, literature, education, music… everything. Cyrus doesn’t work and A Single Man does, but either way they’re both tiny movies that will be forgotten in another year or so. Whereas Life With Father, if someone bothers to restore and preserve it, will probably be playing forever.

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