I make a habit of avoiding movie theaters. Among other more important reasons, I really don’t enjoy other people telling me how and when to react. Misplaced laughter and overzealous reactions ruin a movie experience for me, almost as must as cliches and far-fetched storylines. The experience of watching “Uncle Frank” was an unfortunate mix of all of these.
“Uncle Frank” is the type of movie that is sure to bring in crowds. It boasts big-name director Alan Ball (“True Blood”) and main lead Paul Bettany, pulled straight from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even the plot is enticing: a closeted gay NYU professor from the South must confront his past and his identity when he and his niece at NYU take a roadtrip back home for his father’s funeral. At face value the film promises to be touching, riveting and profound. Instead, it is disappointing.
For a movie featuring heavy topics such as suicide and sexuality in the ’70s, “Uncle Frank” barely lets a poignant moment go by without punctuating the suspense with a laugh. Most of this humor comes from Peter Macdissi (“Six Feet Under”), who nails his role as Wally, Frank’s partner of 10 years. But Macdissi’s impressive performance could not compensate for the poorly-written character he had to portray, and I was left begging him to please take something seriously.
Actually, the entire cast gave a magnificent performance that the film’s plot does not do justice to. Bettany plays Frank with a restrained ferocity that conveys a million thoughts with the flick of a cigarette. And his wide-eyed niece Beth (Sophia Lillis, “It”) is a breath of fresh air on this road trip to rebirth. But, without giving too much away, this film asks us to believe things that are pretty hard to accept, all in the name of tying up the story in a pretty, feel-good bow.
Still, I have no doubt that “Uncle Frank” will be a box office hit. Its biggest flaw is also its biggest draw to the public — it’s a movie you feel like you’ve seen before. Though there are some twists and shocking scenes, you can count down the minutes to exactly when you’re supposed to cry next, and be assured that a laugh is just around the corner.
“Uncle Frank” has a lot to say, I just wish it had the courage to say it. Though they explode in the occasional outburst, the real, crushing emotions of “Uncle Frank” are kept at bay, with nearly every disagreement ending with a “hey you know what? It’s okay.” In the world of “Uncle Frank”’, disapproval consists of whispers around the corner and fights that are resolved with a mere hug. It would be quite a nice world to live in, but it isn’t the truth.