Three on a Match

Robin Wright Penn and Colin Farell in A Home at the End of the World.Photo: Rafy

In A Home at the End of the World, two boyhood friends from suburban Cleveland, Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) and Bobby (Colin Farrell), reunite in the East Village of the early eighties and create an idealized threesome with a somewhat older woman, Clare (Robin Wright Penn), who wants a child. The likelihood of her having it with Jonathan, who is gay, is less than with Bobby, who isn’t (sort of). Back in 1990, when Michael Cunningham wrote the novel on which the film is based, the romantic possibilities in this triangle, at least from a pop-culture perspective, were far more outré than they are today, when such an arrangement could be the setup for a sitcom or a cable mini-series. Cunningham’s depth of feeling transformed the book’s premise into something beyond sniggers or camp, and the best moments in the movie, which was directed by theater veteran Michael Mayer in his film debut and adapted by Cunningham, have a similar emotional charge. In fact, by eliminating a fourth major character, Jonathan’s dying lover, with whom Jonathan is not really in love, the filmmakers have focused more sharply on what counts—the three wayfaring friends whose perfect mate is, for each of them, a combination of the other two.

“Farrell dampens his live-wire presence by turning Bobby’s sexual ambiguity into emotional regression.”

Casting is everything in a film like this, and in the major roles, Mayer scores two out of three. Wright Penn, her hair streaked with blue and henna, at first seems too overbearingly kooky to be believable as anything except a caricature of a superannuated hippie. But gradually, inexorably, she lets us into Clare’s divided soul, and there are moments, such as when she sees Jonathan and Bobby dancing and it sinks in for her that she will forever be an outcast, that are immensely poignant. Dallas Roberts, in his first major movie, seems to have an intuitive grasp of just how much to give up to the camera in order to hold it; his character seems heartbroken by a lifetime of unrequited ardor (for Bobby), and yet he remains unruly, funny, game. There’s also a wonderful supporting performance: Sissy Spacek plays Jonathan’s mother, Alice, whose temperament matches her son’s—she’s a suburban hausfrau who is up for anything.The pivotal role of Bobby is certainly a stretch for Colin Farrell, who is normally cast as a macho hellion, and he’s stretched too thin. It doesn’t help that Mayer saddles him early on with a shoulder-length shag haircut that might have been worn by one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Farrell’s performance never quite recovers from this tonsorial glitch. Bobby is meant to be free-form and enigmatic: not gay but not resoundingly straight either (Clare is the only woman he’s slept with). Farrell dampens his live-wire physical presence by turning Bobby’s sexual ambiguity into a form of emotional regression. He seems stunted—except at the very end, when he shares a scene with Roberts that redeems everything by sliding us imperceptibly into a realm of pure and tragic feeling.

Spike Lee’s She Hate Me is his worst movie ever—even worse than Bamboozled, his self-serving indictment of modern minstrelsy, which at least was worth arguing about. The premise of She Hate Me sounds promising for a sex farce: An African-American executive at a crooked biotech corporation is fired for blowing the whistle on his bosses and is reduced to earning a living by impregnating lesbians who want babies. But Lee is too humorless—too doggedly, rantingly ambitious—to settle for anything as simple as mere entertainment. He also seems to have forgotten how to direct actors, perhaps because he’s only interested in them as mouthpieces.Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), the heroic informer, is thrown to the wolves by his racist boss (Woody Harrelson). Facing an SEC hearing, he invokes the name of Frank Wills, the black security guard who uncovered the Watergate break-in and died destitute for his troubles. Jack declares that “Frank Wills and I are one” and claims “America killed him.” Since when are the perils of high-level informants race-based? Jack also brands his predicament a “high-tech lynching.” Why is Lee unironically comparing his hero to Clarence Thomas of all people? There’s lots more of this stuff, plus predatory lesbians (Kerry Washington plays Jack’s mercenary ex) and simpatico Mafia bosses (John Turturro, doing a riff from The Godfather). Corporate America gets it in the face, but La Cosa Nostra, with its admirable record of youth-outreach programs in the inner cities, is treated with kid gloves. Go figure.

Los Angeles Plays Itself, at Film Forum, is a one-of-a-kind documentary—a rumination on the ways in which “the most photographed city in the world” has appeared in the movies. Director Thom Andersen covers the gamut from disaster flicks to crime thrillers, hippie freak-a-thons, avant-garde, even porn. Iconic movies like Blade Runner and Chinatown get major treatment, and Andersen has all sorts of original things to say about them. He indicts Chinatown, along with L.A. Confidential, as prime examples of how Hollywood replaces public history with secret history, with urban myth (which is scarier but phonier). He shows how the splendid, sunlit trophy homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and others have been used as sets for dens of noir iniquity. The film tells us, “Los Angeles is the place where the relationship between reality and representation gets muddled,” and who could argue with that? But what gives Los Angeles Plays Itself its extraordinary density is the way Andersen transforms a cliché into a metaphysical truth that encompasses far more than L.A. He recognizes that all movies, no matter how trussed up and dramatized, are documentary records of the environments in which they are filmed, and so they are, in a sense, memento mori.From the beginning, filmmakers have created a rich, inadvertent record of Los Angeles—not just the city itself but our pop fantasy of it. And too often that fantasy has expressed itself as a bland insidiousness, as if there were something inherently sinister baking in all that sun. Andersen, a Marxist more Karl than Groucho, argues for an image of the city that includes the destitute and dispossessed, and although we might wish for a tour guide with more showbiz in his soul, his almost messianic quest pays off: He showcases neglected masterpieces like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, about a poor black family, and Kent MacKenzies’s The Exiles, about Indians living in the late-fifties Bunker Hill district about to be bulldozed for corporate development. By happy coincidence, the American Museum of the Moving Image is currently running the series “Paradise (Lost): Los Angeles on Film” through mid-August. It’s a wonderful complement to a wonderful movie.

Three on a Match