Single, sad, and ultimately shallow

Posted: December 24, 2009

A Single Man is like a big coffee table book on grief, loneliness, and loss - and mid-20th-century home design. Set in 1962 Los Angeles and starring Colin Firth as an English literature professor (he's English and he teaches literature), this meticulously crafted film has been adapted from the Christopher Isherwood novel by fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford.

Ford gets a strong and melancholy performance out of Firth, who wears his charm like a burden, because everything in his character's life has become meaningless since the death of his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode, in flashback).

But Ford doesn't know when to quit: A Single Man is too beautiful by half, from the curvilinear Mercedes that George drives, to his modernist house of steel, glass and wood, to the way the sun angles into the rooms, or burnishes the trees, or catches a handsome young student in repose.

A closeted gay whose loss is made all the more painful because his longtime companion's family refused to acknowledge the relationship, Firth's George goes through his days in numbed agony. We even see him planning a suicide - the letters laid out neatly on his desk, the savings accounts and stock certificates - only to be interrupted by a visitor at the door.

His one good friend, stewing in her own regret, is Charley (Julianne Moore), likewise a British ex-pat. She's a flamboyant pile of bouffant hair and baubles, decked out in evening dresses and wishing desperately that George would go straight - and straight into her arms.

Firth and Moore, in a few boozy scenes, manage to convey the closeness, and the inevitable divide, between the two. One could argue that Moore is hamming it up, but Charley, her character, is more guilty of that than she. For once, the star's histrionics seem appropriate.

There is much to admire in A Single Man: the smooth sadness Firth conveys; the emotional pain that radiates from his being; the timely allusions to Aldous Huxley and psychedelics; the sense of dread in the air as newspapers and TV news deliver the latest dramas of the Cuban missile crisis.

But unlike the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man - tonally a very different affair, but it, too, is about a college professor in the 1960s weighed down by terrible circumstance - A Single Man is ultimately disappointingly simplistic.

When Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), an uninhibited student in George's class, enters the picture - and enters George's life at a critical moment - the veil of mourning and anguish begins to lift. If all it takes is another cute guy to go drinking with, and to make love to, to make George forget about his dead partner and the world they shared - well, sure, life goes on, but A Single Man trivializes its hero's heartbreak. It makes his hurt mundane.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

onmovies/

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