There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The germ of a potentially uproarious idea lurks in writer-director Thomas Bezucha’s Big Eden, a lumbering gay dramedy set in a remote Montana town. But the filmmaker largely ignores it to stress simpering pathos, resulting in a movie that’s easier to laugh at than with.
The film opens in Manhattan, where, just prior to a gallery exhibition of his work, lonely artist Henry Hart (Arye Gross) departs for his Montana hometown after learning that his only living relative, grandfather Sam Hart (George Coe), has suffered a stroke. Even before Henry leaves for Big Eden, there’s a hint that something’s amiss about this movie: Although several characters praise Henry’s striking good looks, sharp-eyed viewers will instantly spot that Gross could easily be Pee-wee Herman’s separated-at-birth brother.
Henry’s homecoming fans the sparks of a romantic triangle. While caring for Sam, he’s reunited with Dean Stewart (Tim DeKay), his straight high school friend for whom he’s carried a torch for two decades. Now the divorced father of two young boys, Dean welcomes Henry’s company but is unwilling to upgrade their friendship to a sexual relationship. Meanwhile, Pike Dexter (Eric Schweig), the shy Native American proprietor of Big Eden’s general store, covertly falls for Henry, expressing his infatuation by preparing and delivering elaborate meals to nourish the Harts.
The wild card in Bezucha’s screenplay is that all the residents of Big Eden are gay-friendly. After the Widow Thayer (Nan Martin) figures out why her party to introduce Henry to the town’s eligible young women flops, she holds a second, all-male gathering, drafting every gay man in the vicinity. (The guests include a black and a Jew, underscoring the filmmaker’s fantasy of a prejudice-free rustic utopia.) Even the good ol’ boys hanging around the general store eagerly assume the roles of matchmakers, trying to bring Pike and Henry together.
Had Bezucha chosen to mine the humorous potential of this idealized, gay-positive community, Big Eden could have been an effervescent comedy. A smattering of witty touchessuch as rugged Pike carefully carving radish roses to garnish the dishes that he prepares for his unacknowledged belovedsuggest the approach that the filmmaker might have taken. Instead, he opts for soap-opera sentimentality: Henry agonizing over his emotionally intense but sexually unconsummated relationship with Dean, Pike’s frustrating inability to articulate his passion to Henry, and Henry’s fear of revealing his sexual orientation to Sam. I can’t recall ever seeing another movie in which the principal male characters delivered so much dialogue with tears streaming down their faces.
Running just under two hours, Big Eden opens briskly but congeals as it progresses. Given Bezucha’s optimistic sensibility, we have no doubt how his narrative will resolve, but he can’t resist lingering over pseudo-heartwarming glimpses of local colorchurch services, a Thanksgiving dinner, a country dance. Apart from Schweig, who gives a fervent performance, the ensemble cast isn’t especially impressive. Gross’s Henry is so mopey and self-involved that it’s difficult to feel much compassion for him. DeKay, Coe, and an unrecognizably corpulent Louise Fletcher (who plays Henry’s longtime confidante, Grace) are blandly competent. As the gabby, well-meaning widow, Martin chews up the Montana landscape, apparently basing her cartoonish turn on Irene Ryan’s Beverly Hillbillies Granny.
In the ’60s, when the breakdown of Hollywood’s production code permitted the depiction of homosexuality, characters who discovered that they were gay thoughtfully committed suicide (Advise and Consent, The Children’s Hour, The Sergeant, and so on.). But in contemporary queer cinema, the act of coming out often ensures instant happiness. Although one can sympathize with Bezucha’s generous impulse to create an all-American town untainted by homophobia, his snakeless Big Eden defies credibility. It’s precisely the kind of backwater community from which Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson enlist their supporters. That bigoted duo’s obscene declaration that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were the result of God’s anger at America’s tolerance of feminists, pro-choice proponents, and homosexuals makes Big Eden’s benevolence seem daftly premature.
Writing about a 1945 Joan Fontaine comedy in the Nation, James Agee admitted, “I’d like to make The Affairs of Susan sound half as bad as it is, but I know when I’m licked.” I’m faced with a similar Sisyphean challenge in trying to do justice to Haiku Tunnel, the worst movie I’ve seen in 35 years as a reviewer.
Subtitled “An Office Comedy,” this misbegotten thing began life in 1990 as a one-man theater piece written and performed by Josh Kornbluth, then employed as a temp at a San Francisco law firm. With the help of his younger brother, Jacob, he’s adapted Haiku Tunnel for the screen, although it essentially remains an illustrated monologue, with the elder Kornbluth delivering long chunks of exposition to the camera.
In a daunting stretch, Josh Kornbluth plays aspiring writer Josh Kornbluth, a temp whose agency assigns him to a large law firm, Schuyler & Mitchell. At S&M (a jape repeated more times than I can bear to relate), his boss hands him a dictation cassette containing 17 important letters that must be transcribed and mailed posthaste. At the end of his first day, Josh is offered a full-time job including health benefits. The remainder of the film addresses two burning questions: Will this slacker, a lifetime temp, successfully go “perm,” and will he manage to type and send off the letters? To which any sentient viewer will append a third query: Who cares?
Plump and pie-faced, his balding pate fringed with unkempt hair drooping to his rounded shoulders, Kornbluth isn’t exactly eye candy. Restricted by his appearance to comedy, he hasn’t a clue how to elicit laughs, grotesquely mugging his way through material that only the most accomplished farceur could bring off. Of the eight-member supporting cast, shark-faced Helen Shumaker, as S&M’s stern head secretary, alone transcends amateurism.
Apart from intermittent groans of exasperation, the Haiku Tunnel press screening that I attended was as silent as a wake. An hour into the movie, someone in the center of the theater made a sound that could have been interpreted as a titter. Incredulous faces turned in his direction only to discover that the hapless reviewer was merely suppressing a cough. Despite an overwhelming impulse to flee, I remained seated through the final frame. That’s what I did for you this week, reader. Now what are you going to do for me? CP