Brokeback Mountain.

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 8 2005 7:07 PM

Lasso Me Tender

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and a season of gay cinema.

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Subtitled birds comment wryly on this turn—an example of Jordan's playful technique, the gaiety juxtaposed against acts of shocking brutality. (The Irish Republican Army looms large in the mid-'70s.) Patrick/Kitten grows up obsessed with his absent mom, who's said to resemble Mitzi Gaynor, and flits off to London to track her down.

Patrick's poverty and homelessness in the big city is the stuff of nightmares, but you never catch him brooding on it. There's a bubble around him. In truth, he seems slightly bonkers—on Pluto. And while bad people do bad things to him, others treat him kindly: Among his contacts are Brendan Gleeson's surprisingly tender drunken laborer and Stephen Rea's sad-sack, Stan Laurel-esque magician. (There's a touching, semiparodic reenactment of Jordan's The Crying Game.) Even a police investigator (Ian Hart) who roughs him up ultimately carts him to a welcoming house of ill repute to earn a "decent" living.

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With his unearthly face—high, razor-sharp cheekbones that frame irradiated blue eyes—Cillian Murphy makes a mysterious and transfixing object. A more down-to-earth actor would sentimentalize Breakfast on Pluto and make for an awkward fit with its peculiar mix of tones. Murphy's strangeness—his chill estrangement—makes his campy "Kitten" persona more poignant. Transvestitism is the only way that such a damaged soul can find beauty and harmony in a cold and colorless world.

A thrill a minute. Click image to expand.
A thrill a minute

Felicity Huffman's face is what holds you in Duncan Tucker's delightful Transamerica (The Weinstein Company), too, but her semi-transsexual Bree (nee Stanley) Osbourne is the antithesis of a camp drag queen. A mismatched buddy road-trip picture in which the Los Angelino Bree, shortly before her final operation, discovers she's the father of a teenage son, a homeless-in-Manhattan delinquent named Toby (soulful newcomer Kevin Zegers), Transamerica skirts sitcom terrain. But Huffman has purged all extravagant artifice from her manner. She's smart enough to know that Bree would never risk calling attention to that artifice. A prim social conservative, she doesn't believe that she is artificial. Despite a brief teenage experiment with a woman (it yielded Toby), she has no doubt that her male organ was a genetic screw-up.

Huffman's performance is a thrill-a-minute—and a thrill-a-motion. An actress playing a man playing a woman is a mind- as well as gender-bender, but Huffman's face is made up to look as if she's right on the male-female border, and her ladylike movements are studied, with the timing always slightly off: Before our eyes, she deconstructs a woman and then puts her back together. When, in Texas, a Native American (Graham Greene) in a cowboy hat takes Bree for a born female and admires her form, she shivers with pleasure, and I felt sad that he would ever have to know the (rather misleading) truth. Toby opines that it's weird to see an "Indian in a cowboy hat." He has a greater job of reorienting himself ahead of him: He doesn't know that this uptight woman who bailed him out of juvenile detention (posing as a Christian do-gooder) is his sperm-donor.

Transamerica has a couple of melodramatic turns and the paternity revelation is delayed unconscionably. But the movie builds to a marvelously over-the-top sequence in Bree's upper-middle-class home, in which her horrified Christian mother (a hilarious Fionnula Flanagan) lavishes attention on her new grandson (who doesn't know he's her grandson); her hapless Jewish father (Burt Young!) fumbles to explain the family position on their son's transsexuality ("We love you, but we don't respect you"); her cynical, recovering-drug-addict sister (Carrie Preston) struggles to reconcile the trippy discontinuum between her brother and Bree; and Toby decides he wouldn't mind becoming Bree's lover. Farce born of sadly irreconcilable impulses: Bravo!

Cringe-worthy. Click image to expand.
Cringe-worthy

In a rare burst of discretion, I've put off writing about Rent (Columbia), in part because I don't want to seem unsympathetic to the emotions that gave birth to Jonathan Larson's musical and its subsequent—posthumous—enshrinement in Broadway culture. I don't share the view of some critics that this souped-up La Bohème is faux bohemianism, no more authentic than a Gap ad. It's real—and, on screen, it's really cringe-worthy. Not quite Phantom of the Opera cringe-worthy, but not as much fun to blow raspberries at, either.

Rent is set in 1989, when too many people had already died from AIDS and too many were about to—before the current cocktail of meds brought the virus under control (somewhat). Most of the major characters are sick, and when they open their mouths to sing—it's undistinguished Lite Rock in the promiscuously emotive style of the numbers on American Idol—they're quickly joined by other members of the large ensemble. I can see how comforting and inspiring this instant communal oneness might seem to some people, but I found it tiresomely undramatic, even saccharine. Not to mention monotonous. Chris Columbus directs fluidly (for him), but in a family-movie style that makes the musical seem even more homogenized than it probably is. It's like a ride at Disney World: the Urban AIDS-Victim Jamboree.

Click here to read David Leavitt's essay on whether Brokeback Mountain is a gay film.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.