04 June 2013

After the Glitter Fades

Behind the Candelabra
2013, USA
Steven Soderbergh

There's a lot to be said about the hype surrounding Behind the Candelabra. Reportedly, this saga of the life of famed, closeted homosexual Liberace as seen through the eyes of his boytoy is to be Steven Soderbergh's last film. The director proclaimed that Hollywood found the project to be "too gay," which is ultimately how it fell into the lap of HBO, where it aired in the USA five days after premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie suffered a number of delays related to star Michael Douglas's bout with cancer, and yet Behind the Candelabra persevered. The fact that it took years for a biopic no one really asked for or seemed to want in the first place to make it to the (television) screen makes its existence even more puzzling.

Why was it necessary to bring the story of Liberace to the screen? The film never gets around to answering that question. It doesn't help that most of the key players–aside from Douglas whose performance is the only remarkable and consistent thing in the film–seem to be sleepwalking through the whole thing. The screenplay, adapted by Richard LaGravenese (who happily brought you the films Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You) from the memoir of Liberace's young lover Scott Thorson, never rises above a half-cocked marital melodrama. Matt Damon, as Thorson, coasts through the film on autopilot, which is rather unfortunate considering he's given the most time onscreen. There's an especially rough moment at the beginning of the second act, where it looks as though the costume department has shoved a pillow under Damon's shirt to try to show the audience that he had "let himself go."

But it's really the involvement of Soderbergh, who has churned out five films over the past two years (for better or worse), that confounds me. Behind the Candelabra is about the most drab, unnecessary, and mediocre swan song that I can think of. It was by sheer coincidence that I watched Gray's Anatomy, Soderbergh's visually dynamic film adaptation of Spalding Gray's exceptional monologue, just weeks prior to Candelabra. In Gray's Anatomy, Soderbergh crafts several truly breathtaking images on the screen, both during Gray's performance as well as the gorgeous black-and-white talking head interviews with ordinary people discussing their personal ocular history. What we see in Candelabra, however, is a series of awkwardly framed shots (like one where at least two thirds of the screen is taken up by crumpled brown bed sheets in the foreground as Douglas and Damon pillow talk, naked bodies perfectly concealed, in the background) and amateurishly stylized drug sequences.

It would seem useless to bother complaining about the film's sexual prudishness, its embarrassing newspaper-headline exposition about the beginning of AIDS, or the strange comic tone that never quite works (as witnessed in all of Rob Lowe's scenes), since these are just minor oversights in a project as lifeless as this one. Contracts, as it seems, needed to be met, and the rhinestones must have already been paid for... What a curious career you etched out for yourself, Mr. Soderbergh.

With: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Nicky Katt, Boyd Holbrook, Paul Reiser, Cheyenne Jackson, Tom Papa, Bruce Ramsay, Mike O'Malley, Jane Morris, Garrett M. Brown

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