Monday, December 28, 2009


Have you ever seen a movie that you really wanted to be great but it just couldn't get out of its own way? A Single Man is just such a film, one so stylized that it loses the story and so focused on creating texture and mood that it's all your left with. Telling the story of a gay man (Colin Firth as George) during the Cuban Missile Crisis who has lost his lover to a car accident A Single Man is based on the 1962 novel by Christopher Isherwood. The novel has been long held as one of the first in the gay movement and here fashion designer Tom Ford has attempted to bring Isherwood's book to life. It's ironic that Ford makes his home in the world of fashion because A Single Man is a great looking film. The problems come when the subtext of the book or the depth of the characters tries to come out and is strangled by the aesthetics of the movie.

From what I can gather Isherwood's novel is simply a second by second account of George's life after losing his partner Jim and attempting to live a normal day in his normal life in Los Angeles as an English professor. It goes into George's first meeting and then life with his lover Jim, the death and life afterwards as well as his friendship with drunken divorcee Charlotte (Julianne Moore). Ford attempts to visualize this inner monologue with various film tricks that overwhelm the script as oppose to enhance it. For instance when George is living his post-Jim life everything is saturated and grainy, as if you were looking at the movie through a film over the lens. If something or someone catches George's eye or he's having a particularly intense memory the color becomes very rich and very deep. While that might have worked using it sparingly Ford uses it so often it just becomes a hiccup that constantly takes you out of the movie.

Along with that there's an overuse of slow motion, quick cuts to simulate memories all happening at once, flashbacks, etc. A Single Man which purports to be a quiet movie suddenly becomes visually very noisy so it can't ever find a rhythm. Without that what you're left with is a series of scenes that don't really lead anywhere. The really frustrating thing is that all of these scenes are wonderful (save for Julianne Moore who is obviously making a bid for Oscar glory here) especially Colin Firth. His restrained performance with flashes of genuine anger and emotion carries the entire movie. Ford might have been able to get away with letting Firth carry the film except for his crack-like addiction to stylized movie tricks.

For instance there's one use of slow motion and grainy color that is so badly edited myself and a few others I spoke with all thought we were seeing a flashback to George's childhood. Suddenly we're told no these are his next door neighbors who George has a strained relationship with. These kinds of little issues continue throughout the movie so you never get to settle in and enjoy what's going on. Halfway through you're on guard waiting for the next trick to appear. The movie does find somewhat of a pace by the last twenty minutes but at that point I had given up caring.

A Single Man, in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker, could have been one of those quiet movies that just comes along and knocks an eye candy filibuster like Avatar right off the top spot. Instead it's a meandering visual exercise that plods along until finally limping to the finish. You can see on screen how powerful the book must've been, especially for the times, but that power is never translated. Hopefully if Ford continues to makes films he'll learn a little more about restraint and subtlety. If not then maybe he should head back to the runways where that kind of eye serves a better purpose.

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