A Single Man: Mannequins
“Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty,” a young Spanish stud (Jon Kortajarena) tells George Falconer (Colin Firth), a bereaved professor, in A Single Man. He’s talking about a lurid, smog-inflected California sunset, but he could just as easily be talking about this film, the first directed by fashion designer Tom Ford. Beautiful beyond comprehension and dramatically inert, A Single Man is a gorgeously made-up corpse. Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty, yes, and sometimes awful movies have their own critiques embedded right in their scripts.
A year before, George’s lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), died in a car accident, and A Single Man follows George for a single day in 1962 as he teaches an English class, tips his housekeeper, goes to the bank, and carefully plans his suicide. “You look terrible,” people keep telling him, even though Colin Firth has never been more beautifully photographed, or attracted more attention; over the course of the day, he’ll be propositioned by not just the aforementioned sultry Spaniard but his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore), who’s carried a torch for him forever, and a thoughtful student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). Will George use that revolver he’s slipped into his briefcase? Will his suicide be derailed by any of the hotties who keep throwing themselves at him? Will anything happen at all?
No to the last, until the movie’s ridiculous ending, but to be fair everything looks really great along the way. The suits, the furniture, the cars, Charley’s hi-fi, George’s splendid glass house — the look of the movie is obsessively curated, and A Single Man is as dapper and fussy as its single man. (How dapper? George even looks sharp while reading on the john. How fussy? Ford devotes a comic montage to George’s dissatisfaction with various potential head-blowing-off locations, ending with him pulling a sleeping bag onto his bed in hopes that he might not mess up his sheets.) The movie’s airlessness extends to Ford’s distracting decision to have his cinematographer, the talented Eduard Grau, shoot the film in desaturated color — and then to boost the tones into supersaturation at moments when George feels the flickers of emotion. It’s an exhausting, schematic directorial choice that underlines each scene, giving George’s supposed emotional journey the depth of a childhood game of “Warmer… Colder!”
And it’s a choice that demonstrates the lack of care Ford gives to the actual emotional lives of his mannequins. Again and again, showmanship trumps the hard work of delving into a character, and Ford never makes a coherent case for his character being their aesthetics, an opening voice-over from George about hiding his true self notwithstanding. (Compare A Single Man to a movie it seems to aspire to be, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, and its flourishes seem hopeless next to that movie’s neat entanglement of style and substance.) And so a purportedly potent scene like the flashback — for example — in which George receives the news of Jim’s faraway death over the phone is undercut by the unmistakable voice at the other end of the line, that icon of early-’60s style, Jon Hamm (in an uncredited voice cameo). Firth emotes like crazy, but all most viewers will think during this crucial moment is, “How come Don Draper’s on the phone?”
Trying his best to overcome — or to match — the overload of A Single Man, Firth gives the kind of showy performance that I didn’t know he had in him. (Or, rather, the kind of performance that until now he’s admirably restrained himself from giving.) Moore is, as always, excellent as a blowsy Brit at loose ends. When George tells her she needs to forget the past and start living in the future, she replies, with a pitch-perfect mix of devil-may-care and self-mockery, “Living in the past is my future.” But her character makes no sense; really, would a devoted friend — whom we see, in flashback, consoling a crying George in the pouring rain just after he’s learned of Jim’s death — so casually disparage her friend’s loving relationship of sixteen years?
And Hoult, once the boy of About a Boy, has transformed into a dreamboat in a fluffy white sweater, with the sharp eyebrows and blinding teeth of a young Tom Cruise. But there’s little to Kenny other than an unexplained attraction to George and a vague dissatisfaction with life. “I can’t wait for the present to be over,” he grouses late in the movie, just one of many references to advancing time in a film that can’t lay off the shots of ticking clocks. “The present’s a total drag.” While watching this lovely, lethargic, deeply disappointing film, you may be forced to agree. At least when the present’s over and the future arrives, A Single Man will be safely in the past.
Note: Parts of this review also made their way into an IM chat about the movie on The Awl.