If for some bizarre reason you need to be convinced that women get treated really differently in Hollywood than men do, consider the Cranky Old Man genre. In it, a seasoned, often beloved actor gets to alternately chew scenery or look Grave and Wise. It was lampooned in the sporadically hilarious In and Out, a movie I’m sure the creators of Glee have tatooed to their inner eyelids. At a nicely-done Oscar send-up, Glenn Close includes the following best actor nominees: Paul Newman for “Coot”, Clint Eastwood for “Codger”, Michael Douglas for “Primary Urges.” (Douglas was not an AARP member at the time; more about him in a minute.)
(Naturally, there is no Cranky Old Woman genre; old women are either ridiculous or scary, or in movies no one gives a rat’s ass about like The Whales of August. Away from Her, with the glorious Julie Christie, stunning at 70, is Canadian.)
That Evening Sun has Coot/Codger written all over it, and with its boiler plate indie setting in some rustic America that seems vaguely southern and sinister and where you would never, ever go if you could help it, I would normally avoid it. But I have a soft spot for Hal Holbrook; he’s another tall, lanky, ruggedly handsome guy like my dad, and the trailer reminded me of the wonderful Goodbye, Solo, directed by the superb Ramin Bahrani, the poet of the 21st century American immigrant (Man Push Cart is also excellent).
The movie starts in well-worn curmudgeon territory, but Holbrook’s steadiness and utter lack of folksiness win you over quickly. Chameleon Maya Wasikowska is absolutely lovely without all the Alice in Wonderland claptrap, and different enough from her performance in The Kids Are All Right that I didn’t recognize her. She’s every bit the find Carey Mulligan is, and so far has a more eclectic roster; watch this space. The supporting cast is solid, and there’s a bittersweet poignance in seeing Dixie Carter, Holbrook’s wife, in her final role before her death. Their scenes together (in flashback) are not sentimental in the least, but stunningly poetic in their silence.
The story and conflicts could have so easily veered into cliché territory. There’s the geezer father vs. affluent son (Walton Goggins, the new David Clennon), the drunken, abusive tenant (Ray McInnon) with a co-dependent wife (Carrie Preston) and sweet-as-a-rose daughter (Wasikovska). There’s a fellow geezer (Barry Corbin) who provides succor and a beater pick-up. And yet, the writing, by director Scott Teems who based it on William Gay’s story, “I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down,” twists and turns unexpectedly. Dennis and I have a joke that every movie should be mandated to end on its title (“These weren’t just any wars. They were Star Wars.” Hard cut to black and That Music). Holbrook’s character never once says that portentous, character-revealing statement; in fact, the moon figures much more prominently.
Holbrook is the rock throughout. He’s underrated. I remember what seemed to me in high school to be an astonishing mini-series, The Awakening Land, based on Conrad Aiken’s trilogy. It featured a terrific Elizabeth Montgomery (how I love her), introduced Jane Seymour and her fresh beauty, and Holbrook played EM’s husband. He’s got great eyes (though perhaps not as great as Richard Farnsworth’s, the star in the most spectacular Grumpy Old Man movie ever, David Lynch’s transcendent The Straight Story). It’s an unflinching performance, dignified without elegance, and Holbrook not even on the consideration lists for an Oscar is a shame.
For shame of a different kind, there’s Michael Douglas in Solitary Man. I have issues with Douglas that probably began when he said “nucular” at least eight thousand times in The China Syndrome; my guess is that his ego was so absurdly large even then that no one could gently suggest how to pronounce it correctly. The smug sleazebag routine reached its apogee with his spot-on Pat Riley impersonation in Wall Street; since then, I haven’t seen him do a whole lot else. Solitary Man made me downright queasy. Within 5 minutes, 2 women in their 20s are trying to nail him; apparently, ownership of Catherine Zeta-Jones (just watch him whenever they’re together) isn’t enough to feed the man’s bottomless pit of need to prove he’s Got It. I couldn’t restrain myself from making loud, repelled noises when he began to make out with the lovely Imogen Poots, who plays the daughter of a woman he’s sleeping with, and I turned it off as fast as I could find the remote.
The charm of the Cranky Old Man is that he knows he’s a cranky old man, and he doesn’t care; in fact, he’s earned it. Solitary Man proves there’s no fool like a completely un-self-aware old fool. It’s painful to watch.