Friday 14 June 2013

Review: Behind the Candelabra

Year: 2013
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Matt Damon, Micheal Douglas

Synopsis is here

Steven Soderbergh couldn't get Hollywood studios to fund his biopic about outlandish musical entertainer Liberace as they deemed it “too gay”. Despite the popularity and acclaim of films like Milk (2008) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), the conservative stigma that can follow what could be construed as a “minority” picture still lingers large on certain movies. Such issues come to no surprise. Just look at the problems I love you Phillip Morris (2009) had just getting released in the U.S.

Soderbergh’s REAL final U.K. theatrical release (I mistakenly stated Side Effects in a previous review) takes him back to the dazzling bright lights of Vegas to capture the chaotic relationship of Scott Thorson and Mr Showmanship himself.

I must admit I have an odd sense of frustration as to the Studios resistance to Candelabra. But I have to admit that much of it stems from what doesn't get blocked in any way. Consider the fact we've endured the dubious antics of The Wolfpack for two sequels, with their bickering bromance allowed the characters be as bigoted about sexuality as much as they please. Or remind ourselves of the constant barrage of weakly scripted rom-coms that have leads with little to no chemistry with each other. Behind the Candelabra is sharper, wittier and warmer than those films and yet the sexual orientation of the characters still caused enough drama to ensure that the film had a certain amount of production issues with the film not only have to look for funding but also “relegated” to television for its U.S release. No matter. These days, television is often where all the decent drama is at.

The silver screen however, allows us to see all the gaudy visuals in all their glory. I don’t want to upset the hardcore film fans as much as I usually do, but seeing Candelabra on digital projection was a delight. Lights and sequins sparkle and glare in the frame, while the amber glow that has cropped up in Soderbergh’s recent movies appears again, bathing characters in a shimmering artificial sunrise.  In this light, diamonds catch the light so bright that you could be blinded as badly as Liberace’s dog; Babyboy. Amusingly, it is Babyboy that is the catalyst which helps cause solidifies the connection between Damon’s Scott Thorson and Liberace (Douglas). It soon becomes a relationship which is starts out as caring but descends into one of dependency.

The film has a twinge of Sunset Boulevard (1950) about it, as Thorson absorbs himself deeper into Liberace’s peculiar universe. Medicine for blind dogs soon becomes a web of expensive gifts, plastic surgery and chauffeuring Liberace to his gigs. Liberace from the start; calls Thorson Babyboy. Wonder why that is.
The film takes on similar story beats to films like Boogie Nights (1997), The People Vs Larry Flint (1996) and Goodfellas (1990), showing the relationship at its peak at the 70’s before spiralling into chemically enhanced chaos. The film swings wildly from gleefully camp to startlingly toxic as Liberace digs his claws and ego further into Thorson’s personality. A plastic surgery assignment has Thorson losing his sense of identity as the Liberace continues to mould Scott in his own being. At least he doesn't look like Dr Jack Startz (A scene stealing Rob Lowe), who’s horrifically static, cleaved face gazes vacantly as he describes the procedures of surgery. Yet the emotionless visage of Startz hints at an unfortunate life Thorson may face.

Candelabra is a film of performances; with the whole cast delightfully showing off their talents. Damon balances naive and lost as easily now as he did in his younger days. Douglas is brilliantly nuanced as Liberace, with his downtime (due to cancer) allowing him to perfectly capture an absorbed and talented showman, lost in his own world. The supporting cast is a who’s who of solid character actors (the aforementioned Lowe, Dan Ackroyd, Scott Bakula) who take on the smaller roles with the same effectiveness as they would with their larger ones.

There’s a fabricated sense of family to proceedings, with characters being quick to love and quicker to drop. Parentage is a large aspect of the film with some of the films cruellest blows and emotional damage involving the mothers of both men. The way the maternal relationships between these characters play out, reveal much about why the couple treat each other the way they do. At one point Liberace’s mother wins big on one the slot machines own by her son. Nothing pays out, and Thorson has to go around anyone available to try and acquire some cash.   

Despite this, the main relationship that lies in the centre of the film manages to maintain a sweetness to it that slips in-between the cracks of the ego, drugs and tacky excess. There’s a connection between the two that they clearly didn't gain with anyone else. It is clear that the film is completely taken from Scott Thorson point of view but maintains a civility within such a turbulent relationship. Behind the Candelabra shares the same chintzy nature as Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013). What makes Soderbergh’s effort stand out, is the balance of tenderness with the toxicity.