Producers: Bill Block, Michael Costigan, Jay Van Hoy, Stephanie Meurer, Peter Macdissi and Alan Ball Director: Alan Ball Screenplay: Alan Ball Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Louis Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campbell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez, Michael Banks Repeta and Isabella Pamblanchi Distributor: Amazon Studios
Had Alan Ball made this drama when “American Beauty,” for which he wrote the screenplay, came out in 1999, it might have seemed as edgy and fresh as that film did at the time, though even twenty years ago it probably would have come across as somewhat timid. Today, though, the 1970s-set piece about a gay college professor forced to reveal his sexual identity to his deep-South family feels sadly old-fashioned and melodramatic, like an updated version of something Tennessee Williams might have written on an off day. That’s a pity, because “Uncle Frank” has a good cast that flounders trying to make it credible and moving.
The picture actually opens in 1969, at a Bledsoe family reunion in Creekville, South Carolina, where patriarch Big Daddy (sorry, Daddy Mac), played with a perpetual snarl by Stephen Root, presides as his dutiful wife Mawmaw (Margo Martindale) scurries about in the kitchen and Aunt Butch (Lois Smith) recites her various ailments. His younger son Mike (Steve Zahn) defers to Mac, showing similar rough treatment to his two young kids, while Mike’s wife Kitty (Jane Greer) exhibits proper feminine meekness.
The person who stands apart is Mac’s older son Frank (Paul Bettany), a genteel fellow who teaches literature at NYU. He’s the favorite of fourteen-year old Betty (Sophia Lillis), the oldest child of Mike and Kitty, a quiet girl who loves books too, and appreciates the fact that Frank treats her without condescension, urging her to follow her own star, not others’ expectations. She becomes the virtual surrogate through whose eyes (and, to an extent, narration), we follow the plot.
Four years later and calling herself Beth as a sign of her liberation from Creekville constraints, the girl’s enrolled at NYU as a freshman; Frank hosts a dinner for her and her parents, where they finally meet vivacious Charlotte (Britt Rentschler), supposedly his long-time live-in partner. After Mike and Kitty are gone back south, though, Beth learns the truth when Bruce (Colton Ryan), a calculating classmate, persuades her that they should crash a party Frank is throwing. There she discovers that Frank’s roommate is actually Wahlid, or Wally (Peter Macdissi), a wide-eyed, gregarious Saudi expatriate who introduces himself as Frank’s real roomie—and, obviously, lover.
This news barely has time to sink in before Mawmaw calls with the news that Daddy Mac has breathed his last. Frank doesn’t want to go home for the funeral, but Wally insists that he must, though he gives in to Frank’s refusal to take him along. Instead Frank and Beth will drive to South Carolina and he’ll do his best to make it through the painful process of saying goodbye to the father who’s always treated him with contempt.
From here “Uncle Frank” turns first into a semi-comic road movie, with Wally reneging on his promise to stay in New York and following in a rented car until he’s discovered, at which point they become a threesome in none-too-hospitable territory. Wally’s insistence that Frank needs his support is proven when Frank begins hitting the bottle and reliving in flashback (where he’s played by Cole Doman) the boyhood event that poisoned fundamentalist Daddy Mac against him. The big secret won’t be spilled here, but frankly it’s so predictable that doing so would hardly constitute a spoiler; suffice it to say that the tragic situation involves a high school classmate named Sam (Michael Perez), a door left stupidly open, and a gorgeous lake with a most photogenic dock.
Everything comes to a head, as it were, at the reading of Daddy Mac’s will, which sends shock waves through the family and compels Frank finally to confront the past and the self-loathing it instilled in him. Luckily Wally and Beth are there to help him get through the trauma, and the family proves obligingly ready to accept what they never suspected and offer tearful hugs (although given the time and place, one suspects at least some would have shared the old bully’s retrograde attitudes). At least Aunt Butch is on hand to add a touch of vinegar to the mix—one of the rare moments of humor in Ball’s treatment, which seems based on the odd notion that this is a radical story we’ve never heard before. Of course, for Beth it’s been a decisive “coming-of-age” experience as well.
In the parts of the narrative where he’s allowed to be laid back, Bettany cuts a figure of considerable grace and charm; unfortunately, relatively early on he’s forced to go into highly charged mode, and the result isn’t pretty; by the close he’s practically tearing his hair out. Most of the rest of the cast do their best with fairly stock characters, with Lillis fine even though Beth takes charge implausibly easily in the final stages, delivering a lecture to Frank that’s even more decisive than the one he gave her four years earlier.
The biggest problem is with Macdissi’s Wally, who’s portrayed as so continuously wise and good-humored that he becomes a virtual plaster saint. By the close he’s actually a little aggravating, though Ball obviously intends him to be endlessly endearing. The technical credits are adequate, though Khalid Mohtaseb’s cinematography occasionally resorts to cramped compositions and Jonathan Alberts’ editing sometimes lingers when it should keep moving. Darcy Scanlin’s production design, however, pays proper attention to the period details, and Nathan Barr’s score doesn’t push too hard.
No doubt Ball sincerely intends “Uncle Frank” as a compelling portrait of the way things were (and probably in some cases still are), but it comes across as the sort of earnest melodrama that might have shown up as a cable movie decades ago.