Gloria Bell

Gloria Bell

Sebastian Lelio (2018)

Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his 2017 film A Fantastic Woman, has gone back in time for his latest project, essentially reshooting his acclaimed 2013 film Gloria, but this time with an all-American cast. The result is a picture that revolves around its star, Julianne Moore (whose idea it was to remake the film and who also acted as executive producer), who shines in a constellation of big name actors, many of whom have what amount to cameo roles.

How this sits with the all-American audiences is a curious case study. On review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com, the film has a 94 percent approval rating from professional critics, placing it among the best-reviewed films of the year so far. Audience reactions to the film, however, are far less sanguine. In fact, they are currently at only 45 percent. This huge, nearly 50-point difference in reactions may be the largest such gap in Rotten Tomatoes history. Such a strange discrepancy can usually be attributed to some troll campaign powered by political (or sexist) motives, as recently occurred with Captain America, and the influx of negative reviews comes from people who have not seen the film. That is not the case here. The negative reviews were all posted by people who went to the movie expecting to like it. Wow, were they disappointed. Naturally, my curiosity was roused, and I had to check this film out and see for myself what was going on.

The film opened in wide release this past Friday, playing on only one screen in central Arkansas, at Colonel Glenn. The appeal of the film is reputedly its depiction of a middle-aged, fifty-something divorced woman’s adventures in dating—particularly the fact that it approaches this situation realistically and with sympathy, rather than as the occasion for hyperbolic hilarity or save-me-from-this killer-rapist horror. And what promotion there is of the movie suggests that it’s a comedy.

It’s this last point that probably causes some of the disappointment among viewers, who might enter the theater thinking they’re going to see a light entertaining little family flick. If that’s what you’re looking for this ain’t gonna be it. There is certainly some wry humor here, but you’re not going to find laugh-out-loud moments of raucous humor.

The first act of the film moves leisurely through a detailed exposition of Gloria’s life and relationship. Gloria (Moore) has been divorced for twelve years. She lives in Los Angeles (relocated from the Santiago of 2013’s Gloria), where she spends her days sitting at a desk in an insurance company, doing work that apparently is not interesting enough for us to learn anything about it. She has two grown children, Peter (Michael Cera) and Anne (Caren Pistorius) who seem to have their own lives and seem less than enthusiastic about getting her phone calls. Peter has his own problems, being a new father and having a wife who seems to have gone AWOL. And Anne is dating a Swedish surfer with whom she seems to be enthralled. At home, Gloria is kept up at nights by a shouting, mentally unstable neighbor, and greeted daily by a hairless cat who keeps sneaking into her apartment with the intent, apparently, of adopting her. Meanwhile she spends a good deal of time in her car singing along to ’80s music, and seems to spend most of her nights going to dance clubs by herself and dancing with superannuated men doing the white-man lip-bite dance to more ’80s tunes. If you like ’80s music, you’ll love this film’s sound track.

If this sounds like a sad or even a meaningless life, hold on. Don’t jump to conclusions. Turns out that singing in the car is symptomatic of what Gloria’s dancing with abandon demonstrates even more vividly: This socially awkward lady with the giant owl-like glasses loves life and is pretty much game for anything. “When the world blows up,” she says during one particularly depressing conversation, “I hope I go down dancing.”

The plot kicks into gear when Gloria meets the equally awkward Arnold (John Turturro) at one of her dance clubs. Arnold is a divorced ex-marine and owner of a paintball theme park. The two of them hit it off. Seeing that spark of life in her that we’ve already observed, his first words to her are, “Are you always this happy?” Gloria has a glimmer of hope that her life may be about to turn around, and Arnold seem equally smitten with her. But of course he comes with baggage: Only a year divorced himself, he has still not cut the chords to his ex-wife, who constantly makes demands on him, along with his two grown daughters (who still live with their mother). More tears in the fabric of Gloria and Arnold’s relationship are exposed when she takes him—perhaps ill advisedly—to her son Peter’s birthday party, where we all meet Gloria’s ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett), and his new wife Fiona (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and where Arnold reacts in a bizarre manner to the family’s reminiscences.

The film reaches its denoument after some perhaps inevitable humiliation for Gloria, as well as ultimate vindication, and does end with an unvanquished and unrepentant Gloria moving in a kind of wild abandon on the dance floor. So the ultimate effect of the film is not the inconsequential tedium of the opening scenes, but a sort of limited triumph.

Moore, who is in pretty much every frame of this movie, carries it off with intelligence and aplomb. Through her we understand this character and sympathize with her, but not in any sentimental or unthinking way. Turturro also creates the character of Arnold—a spineless, hypersensitive, unpredictable neurotic—in a way that allows us to understand and not despise him, though we do, like Gloria, become pretty frustrated with him. Rita Wilson makes a welcome appearance as Gloria’s closest friend, and Holland Taylor appears as Gloria’s mother, helping to underscore the theme, already reinforced by Gloria’s and Arthur’s relationships with their families, that no matter how old your kids get, you never stop being their parent. And Sean Astin makes a cameo appearance toward the end of the film, in a role that is memorable even though he never actually has a single line. Believe me, he’s no Samwise Gamgee here.

Some of the negative reader-reviews of this film called writer-director Lelio’s depiction of Gloria “condescending”—the kind of attitude a younger person may have toward someone older, saying “Look at her, isn’t it great that she still has hopes at her age?”—the sort of condescension I’ve heard from people who call me “Young man” when they meet me. But I don’t get that feel here at all. What I get is, “here’s what she’s really like. And it ain’t Jane Fonda in Book Club.”

The other knock from readers is that the film is “boring” or “plotless.” OK, it’s definitely not CaptainMarvel. It’s talky, almost like a play, and there’s not a lot of suspense, just a life-like plot that moves, at times, a little more slowly than we are used to from Hollywood films. But there is a story here, made interesting by the characters it studies, and it’s a story worth telling. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

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