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Friday, 3 October 2008
Reviewing "Sordid Lives"
Topic: Cinema

At the Frameline LGBT film festival last June I was introduced to the world of Sordid Lives, a TV series that was then shortly to appear on the Logo cable network, based upon the film and play for the same name. I'd never seen the film, not to my recollection even heard of it, but the audience that came to see the first two episodes, screned at the festival, seemed to know it and love it.

I've watched the series through the first nine of its 12 episodes, and I find it sometimes cute but unremarkable.

Sick at home with a bad cold, I've spent most of my non-sleeping time in recent days curled up the sofa. After watching the entirety of Heroes Season 1, I decided to watch Sordid Lives, the movie. I found it a tough watch. Had I stumbled into it without having seen the series and knowing the characters, I'd have gone back to watching extras on the Heroes DVDs.

The plot of Sordid Lives goes like this. In rural Texas the Ingram clan matriarch Peggy Ingram is dead, having hit her head on the bathroom porcelain in a seedy motel after tripping over the wooden legs of her married lover G.W. Nethercott (Beau Bridges). It's just before the funeral and her family is in a tizzy. Her sister Sissie is trying to quit smoking while trying to be a good neighbor to estranged the wife of G.W.: Noelta (Delta Burke). She simultaneously forced into playing peacemaker between Peggy's daughters, the wild LaVonda and the prissy Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia). Meanwhile, the two men of the clan, Brother Boy (Leslie Jordan) and Ty won't be making it to the funeral for reasons that are both related and unrelated. Both men are gay, and Ty hates pretending to be what he's not whenever he goes home to Texas, whereas Brother Boy's been locked up in an asylum for 23 years and spends his days in drag acting like country singer Tammy Wynette. As the story unfolds, it's about family shame and acceptance. Shenanigans abound as Brother Boy's female doctor tries to "de-homosexualize" him, and Noleta and LaVonda get revenge by humiliating the men that screwed with their lives.

Unfortunately, Sordid Lives is like many films that have attained "cult" status in that it's an awkward, ungainly production whose devotees embrace it for the very elements that mainstream audiences might consider flaws, or just choose to ignore those flaws because they like the one-liners.

The story is simple and straightforward, and the characters are potentially interesting, but they mostly seem two-dimensional. Beau Bridges is utterly wasted as a drunk buffoon who's never really funny or given much to do. Bonnie Bedelia fares better as the prissy Latrelle because she chooses to play the part straight instead of broad. Even when she's being ridiculous, she's far more real than most of the cast, who, while energetic, are often not likable and frequently cartoonish. I suspect this is more about the script and the direction than the actors.

The gay subplot of the film is handled with a surprisingly heavy hand, and while Leslie Jordan's Brother Boy is played with a certain level of dignity, the part as written is more stereotypical and broad than you'd think. Brother Boy lives vicariously as Loretta Lynn, but it's never clear if he's adopted his country music queen persona as a mechanism for distancing himself from the horrible world he inhabits, if he has gone slightly nuts from his years locked up, or both. The story takes a cheap way out by having him confronted by a psychologist who's clearly the biggest nut in the booby hatch. The character of Ty, who narrates backstory from his therapist's office, is bland, and for every story he tells that feels real and touches a nerve, there's something else that feels worn and retreaded. Ty never seems to be connected to the world he describes.

There's fun and funny stuff here, but the morals are heavy handed, and the story tries too hard to be outrageous, often resulting in forced comedy.

That this film is adapted from a play is readily apparent and all too obvious. I've not seen the play, but its fingerprint are all over the film: the staging and the dialogue and the fact that the whole story plays out in essentially four locations (house, mental hospital, bar and church) all point out this origin in really obvious ways. Effectively there are only four scenes, and while intercut, it's still obviously four scenes. Those scenes would have been better off subdivided into smaller scenes and played in different locations.

Worst of all the technical execution is terrible. Apparently being one of the first indies shot on high def video, the film has a weird flat quality that isn't helped by amateurish lighting schemes where actors actually step into key lights of their fellow performers, casting them in shadows. The camera work itself is shaky and the setup and angles are often clumsy. The deleted scenes on the DVD demonstrate how bad this work can be, as some of the deleted material is so poorly photographed that one suspects it was dropped for its lack of visual quality as opposed to its narrative effectiveness. 

Heck, evenwhen the film apes a classic moment from Thelma & Louise it botches it. The women snap a Polaroid of themselves, which gets represented by a freeze-frame of the shot of them holding the Polaroid and not from the the POV of the prop camera. I realize this is low budget, but not that low.

In a way, the TV series spawned from it is better than the film itself, because it's written in bite-size scenes suited to television and film.

Cute idea, poorly executed.

Posted by molyneaux at 7:25 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 30 December 2008 1:17 PM PST
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