Tuesday, 28 May 2013

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Soderbergh Earns Liberace Title of "MR. SHOWMANSHIP"

Behind The Candelabra (2013) ****
(I'm predicting I'll be upping this to ***** after a few more screenings and/or years)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I have a troubled relationship with Steven Soderbergh.

I was not, for example, on the bandwagon that touted his first feature Sex, Lies and Videotape as God's Gift to independent cinema. I found it dour, pretentious and surprisingly moralistic in all the worst ways. Though there was something to be said for viewing it a few more times over the 24 years since its release to give the picture a chance to work magic upon me, my original response, in spite of occasionally more charitable look-sees remains, like the Led Zeppelin song, the same. My decidedly less-than-impressed opinion of Soderbergh continued: Kafka was a complete mess, King of the Hill and Underneath seemed original enough, but both were strangely unappealing and the much touted Out of Sight drove me up the wall with its showy styling and utter inconsequence.

The Limey, however, represented a major turning point and the showy style, blended with great performances (notably that of Terence Stamp) and a wonderful almost-Mike-Hodges-like-Get-Carter quality delivered a movie I finally loved - obsessively, I might add. Erin Brockovich proved to be a highly entertaining work blessed with first-rate craftsmanship, whilst Traffic delivered a riveting drug thriller - a remake, no less, of the British television production that more than rivalled its source material.

After this, however, it's a strangely disappointing mixed bag - from dreadful (Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, Ocean's Thirteen, Full Frontal) to close-but-no-cigar (Solaris, The Good German) to utterly inconsequential (Magic Mike, Haywire, The Informant) to superbly crafted but lacking any passion (Che: Parts One and Two, Contagion, Side Effects). This all kept me wondering: Who is Steven Soderbergh and when will he make the genuinely great movie (and/or movies) he was obviously flirting with?

Or is Steven Soderbergh just a hack in auteur's clothing?

Behind the Candelabra has, at least for me, changed everything. It might be the closest thing to a masterpiece Soderbergh has made - or will ever make. This Made-For-HBO TV movie is based upon the true-life love story between one of America's most beloved show business personalities and a sweet, anonymous, aimless young man. The film is so thrilling, so perfect, so in-your-face great, I was severely disappointed not to see it on a big screen with a huge, appreciative audience and now, I'm feeling more than a little sad that Soderbergh has recently been threatening to retire from directing films.

Maybe he wants this picture to be his swan song just as it's a movie that depicts a swan song of one of our most indelible figures of stage and screen.

From the stunning simplicity of the movie's first moments - introducing a young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) making sex-drenched eye contact in a bar with a hunky Bob Black (Scott Bakula), through to an overwhelmingly anticipatory stroll within a palatial Vegas hotel and into its grand auditorium, where the flamboyant fur-and-jewel-adorned entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas) mesmerizes his appreciative audience (and us, frankly) as he tinkles the ivories of his majestic Grand Piano - Soderbergh takes us on an unforgettable ride through one of the creepiest and, at the same time most strangely romantic rollercoasters of late 20th Century Pop-Culture History.

There's not a dull moment in this insane love story and astonishingly, the story sets up the inevitability of the eventual demise of this May-December romance that begins almost immediately following the aforementioned stage performance. Within Liberace's dressing room, we see him riveted to the yummy, young Thorson, his impatience with his young, but only slightly long-in-tooth current boy-toy and his none-too-subtle brunch invitation.

Thorson's first blow job from Liberace's eager lips follows a chaste evening of conversation in a hot tub and before you can say "Candelabra!", Thorson's pounding his schwance into Mr. Showmanship's receptive rectum. The film follows a genuinely passionate love affair through the myriad of ups and downs any relationship goes through. The difference, of course, is that Liberace, as played devilishly by Michael Douglas (in the performance of a lifetime) is completely out of his gourd. He not only enlists the services of a pasty plastic surgeon (Rob Lowe) to stretch his visage freakishly to maintain a "youthful" look, he insists that Thorson undergo similar butchery in order to transform the lad into a younger version of Liberace himself.

"Mr. Showmanship" clearly desired the ultimate fuck - himself.

Richard LaGravenese's compelling screenplay allows Soderbergh the opportunity to constantly dazzle us in ways we've yet to see from him. The film is relentless in detailing the freakish quality of Liberace's celebrity-infused madness and all the craft Soderbergh has honed over the years finally imbues a work that seems possessed with a sense of personal obsession in terms of style and an emotional connection - one that extends beyond the filmmaker himself and to the audience.

The performances Soderbergh coaxes are nothing short of brilliant. Douglas has never been better - this is no mere impersonation, but a living, fire-breathing madman hooked on fame, fortune, fucking and flights of fancy to tickle his every whim and desire. The performance sequences are also a revelation - Douglas, at least to an untrained musical eye, looks like he's really playing - and all the musical set pieces are pure movie magic.

Damon as Thorson, who in many ways is the true central figure of this film, is sad, almost soulless and as such, deeply moving as this young man whose life has been marked by a childhood and adolescence of pain and rejection. There is a seemingly endless hurt in the eyes of this young man shunted from foster home to orphange and back again and it dominates this character and Damon's extraordinary performance. He so clearly wants love and mentorship and a father figure - and for a time, he gets it all from Liberace, but there's also a desperation in Damon's performance - the character never seems completely convinced he'll continue to get the love and nurturing he desires and it's a heartbreaker to see the unfolding of Thorson's demise - by his own hand (he becomes hooked on the drugs prescribed to him by the plastic surgeon) and Liberace's (who starts to tire of the boy-toy-turned-freak-and-addict).

Soderbergh's direction of the many intimate scenes between the characters is marked with the same obsessive showmanship he brings to the musical performance sequences and the movie is beautifully paced and structured (again, much of this thanks to a great script) so that Soderbergh also delivers several beautifully directed montages that leap us forward through the story with considerable aplomb.

In supporting roles, Scott Bakula as an old friend of both Thorson and Liberace brings a kind of Sam Elliot-like calm to the crazed proceedings, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's manager Seymour invests a chilling malevolence only hinted at in this terrific actor's comic performances and Debbie Reynolds completely embraces the role of Liberace's beloved mother so astoundingly she's virtually unrecognizable. (I didn't know she was in the movie and while watching it, I kept wondering who this great elderly actress was. My jaw thudded to the floor when her name popped up during the end titles.)

The film is replete with much in the way of black humour, but it's so dark, so borderline demonic that one is always second-guessing one's self after releasing gales of laughter - not in a moralistic way, either, but the kind that is rooted in one's own sense of humanity and finally, in the humanity that Soderbergh invests in this sad, mad and ferocious plunge into celebrity culture.

I really mean it when I say that this picture is so terrific that I want to see as many new Soderbergh films as I can before either he or I, bite the bullet. My relationship is troubled no more. He is clearly a gifted artist who will continue to dazzle me as much as he pisses me off.

This, I think, is what makes greatness.

And it's a good thing.

A very good thing, indeed.

"Behind The Candelabra" can currently be seen via HBO Canada and HBO. It's so good, that in spite of how many people have seen it upon its inaugural television showing, I hope it's enterprising sales company E-One will undertake a theatrical release anyway. It's meant to be seen on big, big screens.