The failed film A Home at the End of the World imprisons good performances by Robin Wright Penn and Colin Farrell within a framework of strung together improbabilities (that’s Michael Cunningham’s screenplay, which he adapted from his own novel) gracelessly realized by stage director Michael Mayer making his cinematic debut.
Besides Penn and Farrell—about whom, more in a moment—the film boasts handiwork by costume designer Beth Pasternak, who clearly put in overtime re-assembling the ugliest fashions of three decades, right down to Ryan Donowho’s wardrobe of fringe buckskin brown leather, two-tone striped pants, and paisley shirts. (Pasternak also costumes Sissy Spacek with a frump wig and a hideous dress of dark blue and green jagged diamond patterns on white. I giggled at the sight of Spacek toking a joint in these matronly rags. It’s the best bit Spacek’s given here: getting high and dancing to Laura Nyro.)
Donowho appears briefly as the 16-year-old Carlton, a child of the 60s, an acid-dropping, sexually liberated free spirit who’s fated to die a horrible death about ten minutes into the picture. Donowho’s vivid presence outlasts his minimal screen time. He and another young actor, Erik Smith, who plays Carlton’s younger brother Bobby as a teenager, are visually, psychologically astute choices for these roles. When the mise-en-scène shifts from 1967 to 1974, and Smith first enters, we can see by his clothing and hair length that he’s emulating, if not channeling, the dead Carlton. And it makes perfect sense that while Smith’s Bobby is a slick, groovy, would-be stud (“We’re all beautiful and lonely here,” he says), the adult Bobby (played by Farrell) will be wide-eyed and not especially resourceful: his role model ended at 16.
There’s a great subject somewhere here, a tragic subject, worth exploring: the actors are game; Mayer and Cunningham make a hash of it.
It isn’t worth cataloguing the reasons why A Home at the End of the World is awful; I will say that the project reeks of studio tampering and filmmaker concessions. Gay adolescent sexuality has been made safe for the masses, and the director bowdlerizes heterosexuality, too. If Mayer wants to know how to film teenage boys making love, he should look no further than James Bolton’s infinitely more authentic The Graffiti Artist. The bedroom scene in that movie developed organically. Mayer misdirects Smith and Harris Allan (as Bobby’s best friend Jonathan) to grope a little too self-consciously. As if they were un-self-conscious about giving each other hand jobs, well, then the audience might not like the boys very much. Bobby and Jonathan masturbate without pleasure and without, apparently, the usual release. “Where was the cum?!” a friend of mine who writes for the Seattle PI demanded to know.
Switch to the 1980s. Bobby falls in love with Jonathan’s friend Claire (Penn), and the sequence of Claire taking Bobby to bed is the film’s emotional centerpiece. Or at least it was, before Warner Brothers excised the full frontal nudity. Although Bobby has had childhood gay sex, he’s a virgin with women. He’s afraid he won’t be “adept,” and when he and Claire climax, Bobby cries. Farrell and Penn are astonishing; they make this difficult material completely true. Everything else the filmmakers compromise to such an extent that they void the point of having made the movie.
A final note: Enrique Chediak’s cinematography is more serviceable than striking, with one exception. At some point during the early 80s sequence, a time after Claire introduces Bobby to the repetitive sounds of Steve Reich and they have sat on the floor utterly zoned by the music, two characters (I forget which) stand in the small kitchen of Jonathan’s Manhattan brownstone. Just outside the window, white linens flap on clotheslines; buoyed by the wind, the bed sheets commingle with the fire escape. On the interior, on either side of the window frame, a pair of rectangular mosaics, mostly in jade or aqua, adorn the walls. There are fleeting cuts to and from this backdrop, yet little else about the film lingers in the mind’s eye so beguilingly as that exterior interplay in mid-air. – NPT
July 21, 2004