Synopsis: Accompanied by his teenage niece, a gay literature professor reluctantly returns home to attend his father’s funeral.
Stars: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, Michael Perez
Director: Alan Ball
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: You know how they say that some movies you can tell were based on stage plays? There are some movies you can also tell were based on books so I kept having to remind myself throughout Amazon Prime’s Uncle Frank that this was an original screenplay by writer/director Alan Ball and did not originate from a novel. Ball, you may recall, was the creative force behind such family-centered dramas as the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the iconic Six Feet Under for HBO where he also adapted Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels into True Blood. There are a number of instances throughout Uncle Frank that feel as if the hand of a novelist, rather than a filmmaker, is guiding the characters and that creates a strange awkwardness that may have worked on the page but doesn’t work as well when played out by actors.
Let’s step back for a second, though. Ball came to write the 1970s-set Uncle Frank after learning his own father might have been gay long after he had passed away. His father’s possible more-than-friendship with a deceased boy in the past mirrors a traumatic event in the life of Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany, Solo: A Star Wars Story) a 40ish man living in New York City with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi). Semi-estranged from his family, namely his father (Stephen Root, Bombshell) back in a small town in South Carolina, he’s kept his sexuality and boyfriend a secret from most of his relatives for fear of incurring their ultra-conservative judgement. When he’s called home due to a family tragedy and Wally tags along, he has to decide whether to own up to who he is and free himself of this heavy burden or go on living a lie for the sake of the comfort of others.
The set-up has all the workings of your typical coming-to-terms drama that we’ve seen done before but the way Ball opts to switch things up is to have all of these events seen through the eyes of Frank’s young niece Beth Sophia Lillis (IT, IT: Chapter Two). Fairly clueless to all of the nuances going on in the life of her sophisticated and respected uncle, she’s unfortunately not that interesting of a character to hang a narrator’s cap on. When we first meet her, she’s a teenager more comfortable talking to her big-city uncle than her country cousins. He encourages her to dream big and several years later she’s a NYU student that reconnects with Frank just as she embarks a few college “firsts”: boyfriend, drinking, etc. Then the family needs them both to return home and they begin a road trip back and its during these hundreds of miles Beth begins to understand more of where Frank is coming from and the true depth to his relationship with Wally.
To his credit, Ball has cast Uncle Frank with an assortment of value-add Hollywood players that keep the film buoyed by their welcome presence. In addition to Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi, there’s Judy Greer (Halloween), a goofy hoot as Beth’s mom that has a tendency to mispronounce big words that she thinks sound fancier than they are, and Steve Zahn (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as her average Joe dad perfectly content to be the son that doesn’t cause any trouble but happy to be noticed all the same. The legendary Lois Smith (Lady Bird) is afforded a few nice zingers as Frank’s truth-speaking aunt and the never-not-great Margo Martindale (Mother’s Day) dependably delivers in the film’s get-out-your-hanky scene.
That’s where the trouble in Uncle Frank lies, though, that scene. It’s a scene that feels satisfying in some way as a viewer but doesn’t feel correct in a realistic context of the location and time Ball has set his story. This Kumbaya moment comes off as overly romanticized and false and while I appreciated it greatly and, yes, wiped away tears, when I really thought about it I knew it didn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s things like that and how Ball insists on having Beth be the de facto filter and interpreter for the audience that keep Uncle Frank at a set distance from the viewer and never lets you get much closer. Though it appears to be an inviting watch, ultimately it feels less personal and more of a clinical endeavor. That’s far removed from Ball’s intention to explore his own father’s latent homosexuality that seemingly went unspoken throughout his life.
Eventually reaching its destination after a rocky journey, Uncle Frank had the cast and creatives to be a scenic tour into a slice of life family drama but winds up running out of gas. That ghastly metaphor aside (and I do apologize profusely), there’s no harm meant in Uncle Frank and the performances by Bettany and especially Macdissi make this one worth a look. Bettany is one of those actors that hangs by the fringe, always doing interesting work but rarely afforded opportunities like this to take center stage. While Macdissi being Ball’s longtime partner and oft being cast in his projects may raise some eyebrows, his warm performance should cast any doubts of preferential casting aside. The feeling lingers in my mind, however, that having Beth as the intrusive narrator proved a distraction and the film concluding with an overly tidy understanding robbed it of the deeper complexity and stronger message it could have achieved.