The Austin Chronicle

A Home at the End of the World

Rated R, 96 min. Directed by Michael Mayer. Starring Colin Farrell, Dallas Roberts, Robin Wright Penn, Sissy Spacek, Matt Frewer, Ryan Donowho, Erik Smith, Harris Allan.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 6, 2004

When 16-year-old Jonathan (Allan) gets caught smoking pot by his mom, Alice (Spacek), best friend Bobby (Smith) takes over. First Bobby gets the timid Alice stoned, then asks her to dance. "We’re all beautiful, lonely people," he coos. Jonathan, who’s in love with Bobby, looks on in horror, but there’s such a powerful sway about the sweet-natured Bobby that no one can resist him. It’s the first of three pivotal, and quite lovely, slow dances in this adaptation of the Michael Cunningham novel, and these scenes most adeptly demonstrate the gentle, somewhat asexual allure of Bobby (whom a later girlfriend describes as an "angel"). Bobby seems to love without discretion or reserve – the product of his flower-powered Sixties childhood, maybe. But the 7-year-old Bobby was also witness to a terrible accident, and one wonders if that trauma retarded his emotional development – he never matured to the point of jadedness, never learned to build defenses. (As far as his mental development goes, the LSD tablets Bobby’s older brother used to slip the 7-year-old might explain why the adult Bobby seems, to put it kindly, somewhat dim.) Three actors play Bobby at different ages, and none of them quite jibes with the other – 16-year-old Bobby seems far savvier than the twentysomething version (who is played by a defanged Farrell). In his 20s, the man-childish Bobby moves to New York and bunks out with the now openly gay Jonathan (Roberts) and his strenuously kooky roommate, Clare (Wright Penn). The three roommates have an unusual dynamic, the possibilities of which are electrifying – especially when Clare becomes pregnant and the three decide to raise the child together. But in order to appreciate their experiment in forging a new definition of family, one has to first understand each member of the family; alas, they’re mostly inscrutable. Even as they lay themselves bare, as when Clare surprisingly announces that she was always in love with Jonathan, the audience is hard-pressed not to mimic Jonathan’s "Huh?" One suspects that these relationships played more full-bloodedly in the source novel; Cunningham, who wrote the screenplay as well, simply doesn’t have the luxury here of a novel’s length and breadth to dig into the characters, to make their complex emotions and motivations less puzzling. (It doesn’t help that his dialogue can veer awkwardly from too quippy to too literary.) The burden, then, to fill in the gaps, rests on the actors’ shoulders, and Wright Penn and Roberts do fine work. Farrell isn’t so successful. It’s a little startling to see the actor, Hollywood’s leading delegate of male virility, tackle the part of Bobby … although "tackle" is perhaps too acrobatic a word for Farrell’s wispy characterization. As the prime motivator of the film’s romantic/sexual/emotional triangle, the role of Bobby demands something sturdier, more soulful than Farrell’s sweet, blank face. With the notable exception of his slow dances with Roberts, in which Farrell briefly unleashes an irresistible physicality, he plays Bobby so soft, he’s barely there – and barely there isn’t enough to anchor a film.

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