July 8, 2011

Queer Review: The Sum of Us (1994)

The Sum of Us
Directors: Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling
Writer: David Stevens. Based upon the play by David Stevens
Cast: Jack Thompson, Russell Crowe, John Polson, Deborah Kennedy

A gentle comedy/romance story featuring a young Russell Crowe before he became famous, The Sum of Us tells the story of two individuals looking for love in this world.

Jeff Mitchell (Russell Crowe) is an openly gay plumber lives with his overly accepting father Harry (Jack Thompson) who is looking for a new wife following the death of Jeff's mother. When Jeff hooks up with Greg (John Polson), a guy from the local pub that he'd be eyeing, Greg is so used to hiding his sexuality from his own father that he actually ends up being turned off by Harry's welcoming home. While Jeff becomes depressed at this rejection, Harry finds love when he meets Joyce Johnson (Deborah Kennedy), a divorced woman who had given up hope at finding a new significant other at her age. Conflict arises though, when Joyce finds out about Jeff's sexuality and becomes upset that Harry would be so accepting of his "homosexual" son. Soon after, Harry suffers a stroke, forcing Jeff to care for him, thereby limiting Jeff's chances at getting back with Greg, who was kicked out of his house, when his own father discovered his sexuality.

The Queering
When full length commercial films were first starting to be made, they borrowed heavily from the medium of theatre, from the technical elements to acting styles. However, films eventually found their own ground to stand on and their own language. The over the top theatrics necessary to bring a live performance to life, eventually gave way to a more naturalistic style that most film audiences will find familiar.

Screenwriter David Stevens could have taken a lesson or two from this history when he adapted The Sum of Us from his own play. In plays, sequences where characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience are more common for a reason in theatre rather than cinema. In a play, this allows the audience to better understand an issue or character motivation that would be difficult to address in a naturalistic fashion. Movies on the other hand have a cardinal rule called "show don't tell". Editing allows for a filmmaker to insert brief scene or flashback into the narrative to help convey information or character motivation, thereby lessening the need for verbal narration.

During the adaptation process, it would have benefited The Sum of Us greatly if Stevens had cut out the soliloquies and instead focused on using more traditional filmmaking techniques to convey the story. It seems not a minute or two passes before another character is addressing the camera directly. If this technique had been used more sparingly, this might have been a better movie, as it was I found it highly irritating.

The lone subtlety - and by subtlety I mean something that was not explicitly spelled out to us in a soliloquy - in the film has to do with Harry and the relationship he had with his Grandmother. It is suggested that perhaps Harry is slightly homophobic but that he goes out of his way to compensate for this because of the guilt he felt when his mother and the female lover she found after the death his father, were separated by his family due to their aging condition and unable to see each other again before they died. This backstory is more touching and emotionally compelling then anything else that happens in The Sum of Us

Much like My Beautiful Laundrette the other problem The Sum of Us suffered from was the lack of any strong central conflict. This is not an insurmountable problem, but the conflicts that did come up were usually too easily resolved. For example, when Joyce nearly dumps Harry because of her homophobia, she apparently is able to overcome it simply by seeing how well Jeff is taking care of his now bedridden father the next time she visits. There are no character arcs or slow developments, everything happens through sudden revelations rather then dawning realizations.

At least here is some nice acting. Jack Thompson should be an now expert on playing a supportive straight guy - he played the lawyer defending a gay man accused of murder in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. His Harry Mitchel is a delight to watch. Opposite him, it's interesting watching a young Russell Crowe show a certain spark that he lost before every role he took on appeared calculated to garner an Oscar nomination.

Recommended for those who won't mind having everything explained to them via explicit narration or who can enjoy movies that lack any surprises.

The Rating


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