March 17, 2020
Far from Heaven (2002)
Grade: 54/100

Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert

What it's about. Set in a Harford, Connecticut suburb circa 1957. Julianne Moore is a sweet-as-sugar thirty-something housewife with two stereotypical preteenaged children (Ryan Ward, Lindsay Andretta). She lives in a fairly posh house with a black maid (Viola Davis). Her best friend is neighbor and socialite Patricia Clarkson.

Moore is married to Dennis Quaid. He is distant but a good provider, an executive at an important local firm. Quaid's midlife crisis is that he has realized he is gay. He loathes his compulsion, but proves unable to resist it, even with after therapy with a psychiatrist (James Rebhorn). Eventually, Quaid leaves Moore for a much younger man.

The steep decline of her marriage is not the only imposition into Moore's carefully arranged and superficially ideal life. Moore has also developed a romantic friendship with Dennis Haysbert, a middle-class black widower with a school-aged tweener daughter (Jordan Puryear). Both Moore and Haysbert soon learn that hostile segregationalist attitudes run rampant throughout all social classes in Hartford.

How others will see it. Far from Heaven cleaned up during its festival run. It received four nominations from both the Oscars and Golden Globes, including Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. The movie was a modest commercial success, and at has a respectable 42K user votes. The user ratings are high though not exceptionally so, at 7.3 out of 10. There is minimal ratings spread across audience demographics.

The user reviews are revealing for their length. Earnest reviewers describe the plot, and their sympathy (or lack of it) for the characters. Folks try to explain their reactions, which is mostly positive. Some point out that the characters are exaggerated, most notably Quaid's angst-ridden homosexual and Moore's perfect housewife.

How I felt about it. The film is well cast, the actors perform well, and the sets and costumes are a convincing recreation of 1957. The script is intelligent, the story is interesting, and the script is okay if unexceptional. Yet the movie falls short of good, and its critical approval may have less to do with its quality, and more to do with the lead, director, and politically correct themes of midcentury American intolerance.

Mostly, we are supposed to feel sorry for Julianne Moore. She is such a nice person, yet her husband is fading away, and her best friend has rejected her for having an intimate friendship with an unmarried black man. And now that friendship is over, as well. Her whole world has fallen down upon her, and she has done nothing to deserve it.

But she is still better off than Haysbert, who is run out of town. She is also better off than Quaid, whose romance with a young man half his age is certain to fail. He will likely lose his job, and get financially crushed with alimony payments. And he probably hates himself.

It is an unhappy movie, where all roads lead ultimately to disappointment. But is this why the film is less than great? No. Actually, only a small percentage of movies are great. Even a majority of movies nominated for Academy Awards are not that good.

The problem has to do with the medium itself. It is difficult to make a good two-hour film that will entertain an audience sufficient to allow its makers to recover their costs. The solution, at least for the big studios, is to make costly but mediocre films that have a huge built-in audience, e.g. Captain America, James Bond, and Star Wars.

Where does that leave the ambitious and well-intentioned director willing to make art house films with A-list leads and midsized budgets? If you are an inspired genius, like Woody Allen was during most of the 1970s, then it is possible to make great films. If your lead is a soft-spoken June Cleaver boxed in by the sneering prejudices of others, then you can create sympathy, but as it turns out, not much of anything else. We are certainly imperfect. But are most of us that awful?