Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Grade: 87/A-

Steven Soderbergh been so prolific for so long that his promise of a sabbatical from filmmaking is nearly unthinkable. The director has covered so much ground over the past twenty-five years, from the War on Drugs (Traffic) to Tampa strip clubs (Magic Mike), and has even promised a Cleopatra rock musical for the stage. But the director does claim to be burned out, and his most recent theatrical release, Side Effects, suffered from a patently idiotic script and a directorial touch that didn’t know how to play it up for fun. But Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh’s made-for-TV HBO Movie and his final (for now) film, is a more fitting finale, and if it ends up being his last film for some time, he’s going out on a high note.

Teenager Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) lives a quiet life with his aunt and uncle while frequenting gay clubs and bars at night. When he meets pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) after one of the entertainer’s concerts, he starts up a friendship and sexual relationship with the older man. Soon, Liberace (or “Lee”, as he’s called) makes Scott his lover, closest confidant, and virtual son, but with the attention and lavish gifts comes sky high demands, including an imposed plastic surgery to make Scott look more like Lee. As the years pass, their relationship grows strained from Scott’s pill addiction and Lee’s sexual promiscuity.

Soderbergh is noted for his often clinical approach to filmmaker, something that can occasionally seem aloof and misaligned for a project (see: Side Effects). Here, it’s a perfect matter-of-fact counterbalance to the gorgeous production design and big performances. It’s also perfect at capturing the ins-and-outs of a business or process: the exuberance of Liberace’s lifestyle and concerts, the ups and downs of Scott and Lee’s relationship (and sexual dalliances), the often frightening processes of plastic surgery the two go through, and Scott’s drug addiction, which takes on an appropriately hazy look compared to the sharpness of the rest of the film.

There are plenty of strong supporting performances in the film, from Scott Bakula as Scott’s pragmatic friend to an almost unrecognizable Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s lawyer to a hilarious Rob Lowe as a predatory doctor who exploits Lee and Scott’s weaknesses (vanity, addiction). But the film is largely a two-person show. Douglas gives one of his very best performances as Liberace, capturing the entertainer’s almost impossible flamboyance while also finding the combination of vanity, fear, and smothering love in the man. Damon is nearly as good despite being twenty years too old for the part (something that grows less bothersome as he’s stuck with disfiguring plastic surgery), playing a man stuck somewhere between overwhelming, nearly claustrophobic affection by his lover and coldness from the rest of the world.

Their relationship makes for the most emotionally affecting material Soderbergh has worked with at least since The Informant!. Soderbergh complained that most of Hollywood found the film “too gay” to fund, but in a way, it’s appropriate that the often-explicit film struggled. An early scene shows Scott at Liberace’s concert, where he and Bakula comment on how oblivious the audience is to the man’s homosexuality. The two are given a dirty look by an old woman, who represents both Liberace’s target audience and those who reject who he really is. When Scott and Lee go through a bad break-up, Scott is left with almost no resources, as his virtual marriage to Lee isn’t recognized. Soderbergh finds not only the soul within their relationship but, without overstating it too much, the political relevance of their story. Soderbergh’s finale is about how far we’ve come and, to an even greater degree, how far we have to go.

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