Colin Firth as George
Julianne Moore as Charley
Nicholas Hoult as Kenny
Matthew Goode as Jim
Jon Kortajarena as Carlos
Paulette Lamori as Alva
Ryan Simpkins as Jennifer Strunk
Ginnifer Goodwin as Mrs. Strunk
Teddy Sears as Mr. Strunk
Keri Lynn Pratt as Blonde Secretary
Lee Pace as Grant
Directors telling personal stories is, on its a face, a good thing. You’ll almost always tell a story better that you have a connection to, because you’ll understand it better. And through that personal connection the story’s meaning is expanded out to the audience who recognize themselves in its details, because people really aren’t that different from each other.
But, individual’s own thoughts tend be extremely interesting to themselves, and seldom much so to anyone else. The risk is the story can get so personal, so specific to the author that it becomes inaccessible.
Tom Ford’s directorial debut, “A Single Man,” doubles down on that concept by telling two very personal stories. Unfortunately, he’s come up double zero.
George (Colin Firth) is a gay man in the 1960s, which means a life of double truths, of isolation and of fear, a life that has to be endured for its few small joys. The one that made George’s worth living was Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years. And when Jim dies in a car accident, there doesn’t seem much left for George but to die as well.
If that sounds ungodly depressing, it is. Depressing can be good; there’s a catharsis involved coming through a tragedy that can be, if not uplifting, at least informative. Feeling sad can feel good. “A Single Man” is not that kind of depressing. It’s the turgid kind, the kind that wallows; then it wallows in its wallowing.
It starts out well enough as George awakens into the mess his life has become and begins to go about his day, marching around alone and speaking largely to himself in voice over. About 20 minutes later when he finally leaves his house and heads to his day job as an English professor, any good will has been drained away.
It shouldn’t be this bad. It’s fantastic looking, from great production design to some beautiful cinematography, and at least 50 percent well-acted.
Firth is staggeringly good as George, so good he single-handedly makes “A Single Man” a better film than it is. It helps that he’s in every scene, because he doesn’t have much support. Except for a long scene with his friend from the good old days (Julianne Moore), Firth spends his time bouncing from underrated actors like Lee Pace and Ginnifer Goodwin making the most out of a few lines, to extended sequences with very young actors who look like underwear models and have a similar acting range. Particularly George’s young muse (Nicholas Hoult) who is more of a type than a character and gets stuck with much of the film’s worst dialogue.
Mostly it seems to come down to inexperience on writer/director Ford’s part about the best way to go about the story he wants to tell. He certainly knows what story he wants to tell and how to use an image, but doesn’t seem to understand how it fits together as a whole. After starting with some subtle dream images and visuals explaining what’s happened to George and how it’s affecting him, he then wastes a lot of time driving the point home before moving on. Then he returns to it several more times.
The point is to put the audience in George’s shoes, to feel what he feels, but he goes too far, with little to balance out the sadness. By the halfway point I wanted to put a gun in my mouth.
There are signs of a talented director in the waiting in “A Single Man,” but Ford’s not there yet. Every artist goes through their growing pains, and this time is no different, but it’s seldom pretty to watch. Usually you just wait for them to get it out of the way and move on to the good stuff. Hopefully it won’t take too long.