Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gray Matters

Director: Sue Kramer
Starring: Heather Graham, Tom Cavanagh, Bridget Moynahan, Molly Shannon, Alan Cumming, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Shelley

Running Time: 95 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

It's with a heavy heart that I report we're going to have to wait a little longer for that Heather Graham comeback role because it definitely doesn't come as an advertising executive coming to terms with her lesbianism in writer/director Sue Kramer's "romantic comedy", Gray Matters. The nicest thing that can be said about the film is that it doesn't fail in a spectacular way, it just merely gets everything wrong. It's contrived and silly and the characters in it bear no resemblance to any human being you'd ever meet in your life. There is a spark of chemistry between the actors and everyone looks like they're having a good time…except us.

The movie does pose an important question though: Can you recommend a terrible film on the basis of a single scene? Well, in the case of this scene, and if you're a guy, yes. Unfortunately this cinematic moment is surrounded by direct-to-cable direction and screenwriting. Worse though, is that this movie contains a premise with some promise and comic gold could have been mined from it… with just a little effort.

Gray (Heather Graham) and Sam (Tom Cavanagh) are siblings who are completely inseparable. They live together, work out together, and even dance together (as shown in the film's memorable opening sequence, a Fred and Ginger dance number that celebrates the glory days of old Hollywood). Unfortunately they're so close everyone assumes they must be dating. Thoroughly creeped out, the two make a pact to branch out and find the perfect mate for the other sibling. This leads to a somewhat funny scene in Central Park with them pretending to walk their dog when they run into zoologist (!) Charlie (Bridget Moynahan). At first it's tough tell who the beautiful Charlie is more interested in or which team she bats for, but soon she finds herself attracted Sam and, in what seems like (no joking) a matter of minutes, they're off to Vegas to get hitched. This leads to a wild girls night out before the wedding that features an uninspired karaoke performance of "I Will Survive" (made all the more intolerable by a cameo appearance from, you guessed it, Gloria Gaynor).

Then comes the infamous lesbian kiss between Gray and Charlie, which Charlie ends up having no memory of because she was drunk out of her mind. That anyone, no matter how trashed, could forget a kiss like that might be the biggest leap of faith the script asks us to take. The rest of the film consists of Gray trying to sort out her feelings for Charlie and her potential homosexuality. The way I phrased that almost implies the film contains ideas of some sort. My apologies. What the film does contain, however, are some cartoonish sub-plots and supporting characters that do not hail from this planet.

In my recent review of Ghost Rider I complained how that a TV reporter is the most thankless occupation an actress can be asked to portray onscreen. If it is, then an advertising executive comes in a close second. Gray not only works for a prestigious advertising firm, but she works for one of those advertising firms you may have seen in other movies. You know the ones that look like a penthouse suite and no one does any work all day. But in case you get bored there's always a sarcastic, loud mouth, oversexed female co-worker there for entertainment. She's played by Molly Shannon and the movie even manages to make her unfunny. It also contains one of the clumsiest advertising presentation scenes I've ever seen in a film. Gray gives a presentation and when it's over the client says it's bad. No reason why. It's just bad. "I don't like it." That's the end of the scene. At first I was puzzled until I realized Kramer probably couldn't think of why, so she just cut her losses and moved on. We should probably be relieved.

Another one of this film's genius creations is Gray's therapist (Sissy Spacek) who thinks it's a good idea to have their sessions while bowling and wall climbing. Why? I have no idea. Maybe Kramer thought it would be funny or she was told in screenwriting class it's clever to add an interesting setting to a scene when there's a lot of dialogue. We also have a cab driver (Alan Cumming) with an infantile crush on Gray. Buying Alan Cumming as a heterosexual male is a leap enough, not made any easier by the decision to have him appear in drag late in the film. His character is so needlessly inconsequential and added so late in the story I could almost visualize the notes on the script (likely written in crayon) as I watched.

What prevents this film from going into less than one star territory is that the performances are fine and a nice chemistry exists between the three actors. I could imagine a romantic comedy with Graham, Cavanagh and Moynahan that actually works. They all come out generally unscathed, which is a testament to them. I also thought, against all odds, Cavanagh and Graham were somewhat believable as siblings. Graham is adorable in everything she does (and her presence is always enough for me to check out any film) but this is the first time I can recall one of her characters actually grating on my nerves, which in no way is her fault. She can't reasonably be expected to convey a sudden transformation to homosexuality when the script doesn't give her a reason to have one.

No one could have done any better with this thankless material and all the actors never really stood a chance. The dialogue in the film is so overwritten, long winded and over-the-top you can't imagine ever any functioning person speaking this way. It's like being hit over the head with a sledghammer for 95 minutes (a running time that seems sadistically long for a film like this). Once "the kiss" occurs the movie does pick up some momentum heading into its final act, but by then it's a lost cause.

The film is directed with absolutely no style or substance at all by Kramer, somehow giving us the impression the film is even slighter than it's letting on. That this went nearly straight to DVD (opening theatrically in only one city) and not to Lifetime is a small miracle. Good romantic comedies let us relate to real people struggling with issues in a smart, humorous way. It makes observations about life and relationships and builds its laughs around that. This is a black hole of comedy. So if anyone is tempted to check out Gray Matters for that lesbian kiss I'll offer up this advice: They invented YouTube for a reason.

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