There’s a good deal less than meets the eye in Michael Meyer’s “A Home at the End of the World,” a sprightly but shallow tale of a defiantly untraditional family adapted by Michael Cunningham from his own novel. Filled with dramatic incident–particularly illnesses and deaths, though also one birth–the story of an unusual romantic triangle is nonetheless a weightless concoction that prizes quirkiness over depth. Ultimately the movie is little more than a fable of the power of unconditional love, given a nostalgic feel by its Age of Aquarius mindset and a slight edge by a gay twist.
In 1974 Cleveland, two high school misfits–Bobby Morrow (Erik Smith) and Jonathan Glover (Harris Allan)–bond over a joint and soon become best friends. Bobby is kind of a lost child: the free-spirited older brother whom he idolized (Ryan Donowho) was killed some years before in a freak accident with a sliding door (as we’re shown in a brief prologue from 1967), and his mother has since passed away, too. When his professor father suddenly dies as well, he’s effectively adopted by Jonathan’s parents, kindly Ned (Matt Frewer) and almost preternaturally understanding Alice (Sissy Spacek), who tries a joint the boy offers her and doesn’t even blanch when she realizes that he and her son are engaged in sexual experimentation. Moving ahead to 1982, Jonathan (now played by Dallas Roberts) is living in New York City and Bobby (now Colin Farrell) has remained behind with the Glovers in Ohio, working as a baker–a skill to which he was introduced by Alice. But when Ned and Alice decide to move to Arizona for his health, Bobby chooses to pull up stakes and head for the Big Apple too. Jonathan welcomes him at the East Village apartment he shares with Clare (Robin Wright Penn), an older woman with some money and few inhibitions. Though Jonathan has come out and is engaging in non-stop one-night stands, his affection for Bobby is still obvious, and he’s also planning to fulfill Clare’s desire to have a child. Things change, though, when the blithely naive Bobby is introduced to heterosexual sex by Clare, and the two fall in love, leading Jonathon to flee to his parents in Arizona. A death there brings the trio back together again, and leads to their eventually settling, with an infant daughter, in Woodstock, where, at Bobby’s suggestion, they open a home-style diner. But their life there isn’t idyllic; the pressures of parenthood and another sickness intervene.
“A Home at the End of the World” has a loose charm that makes it easy to like, and the cast is outstanding. Farrell, who’s shown a penchant for brusqueness and brutality in most of his previous roles, makes Bobby convincingly sweet and innocent (despite a perfectly awful wig he has to wear for awhile), Roberts conveys Jonathon’s mood swings skillfully, and Wright captures both Clare’s flamboyance and her underlying longing for normalcy. It’s not surprising that Spacek is so wonderfully endearing as Alice, but Frewer’s nicely restrained Ned isn’t quite so expected. And the youngsters are excellent, too. Smith is remarkable, meshing so well with Farrell that you might swear they were siblings, and both Allan and Donowho are solid, if not on the same exalted level. And their work is nicely showcased, under Mayer’s fluid direction, in a production marked by fine period detail from Michael Shaw (designer), Edward S. Bonutto (art director), Mark Steel (set decorator) and Beth Pasternak (costumer), excellent widescreen cinematography by Enrique Chediak, and a subtle score by Duncan Sheik (complemented by a fine selection of pop songs).
Still, despite the evident craftsmanship, the picture can’t escape a degree of awkwardness deriving from the source material. Though the characters are well played and generally pleasant to spend time with, they never cease to seem more literary devices than flesh-and-blood people. And the plot turns have a strong element of contrivance about them, as affecting and amusing as they often are. Between the covers of a book Cunningham’s elaborate structures and careful balances might not call undue attention to themselves, but when compressed into a mere ninety-three minutes, they become obvious and calculated. Cunningham contributes to the feeling of artificiality as well, employing dancing as a motif to tie the episodes together in a way that doesn’t so much create a magical mood as weaken the story’s realistic underpinnings.
But the pleasures of the picture largely make up for the affectation. This “Home” is a reasonably nice place to visit, even if it has some architectural problems.