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Uncle Frank – Movie Review
In 2000 Alan Ball won an Oscar for the original screenplay of “American Beauty.” He then went on to develop such iconic, dark and edgy series as “Six Feet Under,” “True Blood” and the short lived, “Here and Now.” I am a huge fan and I remember the standing ovation “American Beauty” received when I saw at a screening in Los Angeles in 1999. Ball’s work is great at blending, despair, dark comedy – there are laugh out loud moments in American Beauty – and character empathy for morally ambiguous characters. His sensibility has always felt more European, more complex, and more independent than mainstream Hollywood.
Ball has stated that Uncle Frank, which is set in 1973, isn’t exactly autobiographical, but autographically inspired. Ball grew up and went to college in the South (Georgia, and Florida) and yearned to escape to a place (NYC) where being gay was more accepted, similar to the protagonist, Frank (Paul Bettany). When Frank’s niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis) is accepted to NYU, where her uncle is a revered English professor, Frank’s secret (from his family) life comes into clear focus. This revelation is a bit of a shock to the innocent Beth, who deals with it while simultaneously getting drunk and sick from booze, for the first time. But she soon accepts it, including Frank’s effervescent partner/lover Wally played by Peter Macdissi. After all, Uncle Frank is her favorite uncle because he is urbane, sardonic, book-smart and is always smoking and drinking. Not since Bette Davis, has an actor used a cigarette this effectively as a prop.
If only the film stayed in 1973 New York and focused on Beth, her adventures as a NYU freshman and her relationship with her uncle and his partner and their cosmopolitan friends. The first part of the film is intriguing and rich in period detail and atmosphere. But, alas, there has to be conflict, and when Beth and Frank are forced to take a road trip back to their South Carolina home and family, the film’s subject matter and storytelling becomes more traditional and predictable. This is surprising given Ball’s previous work.
Confronting his homophobic, fundamentalist family, and his dark past; full of self-loathing and guilt over a doomed love affair with a local teenage boy, Frank has to come to terms. The film is terribly earnest and honest, but some of the plotting and familiar tropes are a bit hard to handle. It is as if everyone, including an amazing, talented supporting cast – what a pedigree- got caught up in the integrity of the project and didn’t realize that there is some sloppy plotting and clichéd scenes. The impressive cast includes giant talents: Margo Martindale, a 90 year old Lois Smith – she still has the chops, Steve Zahn and always fantastic and frequently underrated Judy Greer.
Perhaps Ball is too close to the material, I am sure this story was important for him to tell. But it certainly lacks the irony and originality of his other work. Coming out stories, are a tried and true trope for gay films, but as progress continues to be made for acceptance in America, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss is about, even in a film that is set nearly fifty years in the past in the American South. We often find ourselves just uttering a nostalgic sigh of relief. Perhaps my beef isn’t with the story itself, but how the story is told. That aside, it is well acted, especially by Bettany and Lillis, who is turning out to be a young talent to watch.
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