"In the 1970s, a drag queen and his closeted lover fight in court to adopt a child with Down Syndrome." It sounds like a synopsis for a TV movie, right? Or a plotline from a prequel to "Queer As Folk." And in writer-director Travis Fine's hands, Any Day Now, the movie from which this plot derives, is a bit stereotypical and a bit TV movie-ish ,to be sure. But Alan Cumming's go-for-broke performance as the drag queen is sensational and Garret Dillahunt, as his lover, is so quietly effective that both transcend the plot. Here's a movie that embraces melodrama and is elevated by its willingness to do that.
We first meet the tough, no-nonsense Rudy Donatello (Cumming) as he is performing in a tatty gay bar in 1979 on the West Coast. He catches handsome but shy Paul Fleiger (Dillahunt) giving him the eye onstage and, afterwards, the two hook up. Paul is recently divorced and just beginning to have sex with men while Rudy, with his Bronx accent and attitude to match, takes charge sexually and emotionally. The attraction between the two is instant.
Rudy's neighbor in his scuzzy apartment building is trampy drug addict Marianna (Jamie Anne Allman), who has a son with Down Syndrome. Rudy first encounters the 14-year-old Marco (Isaac Leyva) when he knocks on Marianna's door to protest her ever blaring rock music. Finding the door open, he enters and finds the teenager curled up in a corner. The plight of the boy melts Rudy's heart and when Marianna is arrested for drug addiction, Rudy becomes Marco's surrogate father.
For a while everything's okay, but then Rudy's irate landlord reports him to family services, who take Marco away. Rudy implores Paul, who works in the district attorney's office, to help him get Marco back. The two then move in together and visit Marianna in jail where she signs temporary custody papers. In court before a stern judge (Frances Fisher), Rudy and Paul pretend to be cousins, knowing that if their true relationship were revealed, they'd never get custody. They become Marco's foster parents and again everything's peachy keen. Rudy, with Paul's encouragement (and the gift of a reel-to-reel tape recorder), is making singing demos and to one of themthe upbeat "Come to Me," sung to a sultry jazz piano accompanimentwe see the trio in a home movie montage becoming a loving family.
Fate intervenes when Paul is strongly urged to bring Rudy and Marco to a social gathering by his conservative boss, Lambert (Gregg Henry). During the outing, Lambert picks up on the true nature of the relationship between the outspoken Rudy and the closeted Paul; very quickly, events overtake the duo. Marco is removed from the home, Paul is fired and in court the irate judge, now knowing the true relationship of the couple, shows them no mercyor lack of prejudice. In a final humiliation, Marianna returns to reclaim Marco. Rudy, knowing this spells the end for the boy, is beside himself and emotionally berates the judge in open court, leading to a tragic conclusion that given its time and place, seems sadly inevitable.
In a moving finale, Rudy is shown performing Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," a song no doubt inspired by Bette Midler's glorious rendition of it from the time period. (Gay men have ever since embraced it as an anthem for our cause.) It's a canny choice that allows the character a chance to declare his determination to rise above his station in life and to emotionally break free from society's constraints and from his heartbreak. Fine's movie, with its downbeat look and feel (along with the ending), mirrors the urban cinema of the '70sit has the gritty feel of the erathat augments the emotional mileau it traffics in.
Although inspired by real life, the events here are purposely pushed to the dramatic hilt and Cummingin daring to go all out, certainly at the behest of his directoris going to catch a lot of flack for eschewing a more naturalistic approach to his character. Bette Davis and Susan Haywardprime scenery-chewers eachplayed a lot of histrionic characters like Rudy Donatello, and we revel in these performances decades after they were made.
Which brings me to the question: When did melodrama at the movies become a dirty word? Perhaps Any Day Now, along with the over-the-top work of the ensemble in Lee Daniels' The Paperboy (see note below), will lead the charge in bringing back larger-than-life acting to the moviessomething that to my way of thinking is sadly overdue. It's wonderful to see Cumming taking the risk in what one can only hope is a new trend toward an older style of acting that the movies have sorely missed.
A second helping of melodrama: Critics were wildly divided over out director Lee Daniels' melodramatic and audacious The Paperboy, a Southern-fried gothic if there ever was one. Nicole Kidman plays the trashiest of white-trash vixens, out to free prison pen pal John Cusack with the aid of a closeted gay journalist (Matthew McConaughey) who's into really rough trade on his off hours and his sexed-up little brother (Zac Efron), who has a habit of dancing around the house in his skin-tight skivvies. The actors go for broke, with mixed results, but Kidman's the real deal and Daniels really captures the drive-in, exploitation feel of '60s B pictures that he was going for (and in which time period the film is set). The movie didn't sit well with audiences but is getting a second helping with a run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., on Wed., Jan. 2, and Thursday, Jan. 3.
At last: After a long year of winning raves on the festival circuit and receiving critical kudos in its theatrical run, The Wise Kidsfrom out writer-director Stephen Cone and one of my top 10 LGBT film choices for 2012is finally coming to DVD Jan. 8 from Wolfe Video. A delicate coming-of-age story, the movie follows three young teens as they grapple with issues of faith, family, friendship and sexuality. Cone himself is marvelous in a key supporting role.
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.
Also, check Windy City Times' website for reviews of The Guilt Trip and Parental Guidance, which star, respectively, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler.