Directed by Todd Haynes | Written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik | 117 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | On Netflix
Early on in the film the camera dollies in as Gracie looks in the fridge, accompanied by a dramatic, doomy piano score flourish, and Gracie says, “I don’t think we have enough hotdogs.” If that isn’t a tip we shouldn’t take what follows too seriously, I don’t know what is.
May December is from director Haynes, who has long indulged his affection for Douglas Sirk melodrama in movies like Far From Heaven, but also knows how to do clinical and unnerving like Safe, both of which starred frequent collaborator Julianne Moore.
We get a lot more of the juxtaposition of the mundane and the melodramatic in May December, but the vein of self-conscious comedy doesn’t keep this picture from being a deeply felt, involving drama about what’s on the surface of relationships and what’s down underneath. It also doesn’t keep it from being what some might call “massively cringe.”
Our way in is via Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a celebrated actor on a research mission, visiting with a Savannah, Georgia couple, Gracie and Joe (Moore and Charles Melton), and family. They’re a couple who met when he was 13 and she was 36, married with kids. Their affair began when they both worked at a pet store, discovered making out in the store room by their boss and the scandal broke. The tabloids got ahold of the story but their affair continued, producing children even while she was behind bars.
Now, many years later, their kids are graduating high school while they’ve agreed to allow Elizabeth into their lives as she prepares to play Gracie in an “independent” movie.
Portman has cornered the market on characters comfortable with masks, both the literal and figurative, in movies like Closer, Black Swan, V For Vendetta,Jackie and Vox Lux. She is phenomenal as Elizabeth — as she goes along, she picks up Gracie’s mannerisms, even mimicking her slight lisp. She transforms. She works her character’s celebrity and the way it affects other people to get what she wants — she seduces everyone around her.
Everyone but Gracie. Elizabeth and Gracie circle each other, an uneasy codependence. Elizabeth wants to better understand the woman she’s playing and Gracie is game to share, but Gracie has secrets and control issues that are only revealed when she’s alone with her much younger husband. As Elizabeth spends time with Gracie’s kids and with Joe, she starts to understand, until she gets too close.
Through Elizabeth, Haynes is taking a few well-placed shots at celebrity privilege and acting — especially The Method — the exploitative nature of an industry that wants to serve up lurid “real life” tales for a buck. The picture also deftly peels away the issues that linger in this family, the long ignored trauma, the ripples of one’s woman’s decision long ago to throw a grenade into her own life and ruin many others by raping a minor. Melton especially is terrific at the core of all this trauma, convincingly overwhelmed by the way he’s finally comprehending the decisions made that weren’t all his.
And if Julianne Moore doesn’t get the same approbation this awards season as her costars it’s because she’s given us a fantastic career of plausibly damaged people. Twenty-five years since Boogie Nights we take her fearlessness for granted.
If, in the end, May December refuses to go as far as maybe its artificially dramatic score might’ve been prophesying, the film never overplays its hand taking you where it is going.