Uncle Frank

At the Movies Blog

It’s hard for this gay couple to be happy returning to the South in the early ’70s.

One of the fun things about being a movie critic is when our critics groups talk at the end of the year about movies we’re going to be voting on. One critic had mentioned liking this movie. I remembered planning to review it a few weeks ago, but I just got really busy. And something about the title turned me off. I think it’s the fact that I spent years watching Jimmy Kimmel, and his “Uncle Frank” was a security guard he often did bits with. So I figured that would take me out of who this character was.

Writer/director Alan Ball is the guy who penned the heavily Oscar-nominated American Beauty (Kevin Spacey). He also wrote and directed a a dark movie I loved called Towelhead (Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette). One of the actors from that (and also Ball’s show Six Feet Under, as well as Ball’s partner in real life), Peter Macdissi, plays Frank’s long-time lover. It’s a period piece taking place in the early ‘70s. They have to keep their relationship under wraps. 

Frank first leaves his southern town to teach at NYU. His niece Beth (Sophia Lillis of It) decides to go to school there. Early on, we see they have a great relationship. And that’s great for her, considering the fact that her grandfather (played brilliantly by Stephen Root) is a bit of a racist, homophobic jerk.

Root is great in the part, and another interesting casting choice is Steve Zahn as Frank’s brother. We’re used to him in comedic roles (I still love how brilliant he was in Out of Sight). My wife was a bit bothered with the scene he’s in at the end of the movie, which she didn’t feel was earned. I still can’t stop thinking about him at a funeral, and what he says to Frank. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it now.

Judy Greer plays Kitty, Beth’s mom. And just as I said when she played George Clooney’s wife in The Descendants, I wish she were given more to do. She’s such a talented actress. And many will feel that way about Margo Martindale. You can always have more Margo in a movie. Her scenes at the end of the picture are wonderful (although aspects of the end of the film do bother my wife and I a bit).

The movie becomes mostly a road trip picture, as Frank (Paul Bettany in what should be an Oscar-nominated performance) has to return for a funeral. He doesn’t want his lover to go with him, but he ends up tagging along in a rented car. 

It was fun early on, to watch Frank bring his “girlfriend” Charlotte (Britt Rentschler) to meet the family, saying he’s kept her hidden because she’s “Jewish.” Mike (Zahn) says, “Well, at least she isn’t black.”

There are some flashbacks to Frank’s first love, and they’re done well. But, the movie does get a bit manipulative and very cliche. You can just about predict everything that will happen. That doesn’t mean it didn’t move me, though. I’ve never seen a self-loathing character on screen that I rooted for this much. You just feel horrible for Frank’s plight.

Ball is an experienced enough writer/director, that I think he could have found a way to not push the Beth character aside once this narrative becomes about Frank. 

Sometimes Ball needs to be reigned in a bit, too. There was a scene I felt like he was trying for an agenda, or educational bit about homosexuality, when I’d much rather he just trust this terrific cast to deliver a subtle message. It’s similar to how I felt he dropped the ball in how he wrote Chris Cooper’s closeted homosexual neighbor in American Beauty; or how Ron Howard completely blew it with his recent movie about the south — Hillbilly Elegy.

It was fun to see British actor Bettany looking like Peter Fonda in the ‘70s, and to be taken on this emotional journey. I think I cried for a solid hour after watching it.

People should check this film out, and you can for free, on Amazon Prime.

3 stars out of 5.

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