Behind the Candelabra, and Then Some

Matt Damon and Michael Douglas In HBOs flamboyant docu-drama on Liberace.

It’s loud. It’s creepy. It’s gauche.

No, I’m not talking about Liberace, or his piano playing.

I’m talking about Steven Soderbergh’s latest, I refuse to say final . . . film, Behind the Candelabra.

Soderbergh, who rose to prominence after his 1989 Palme d’Or winning film sex, lies, and videotape, has veered so far from his, for lack of a better word, style. The director has “grown” from non-linear, beautifully shot films to boring, uninteresting films. The declaration that this would be his last film is the most dishonest “retirement” since Jay-Z’s in 2003 (he’s always been back as the 4-5, and he’s always been playing games on you). If this were to be his last film, then good riddance.

I’m not saying Candelabra is a bad film. It’s merely adequate. The reason it even attains averageness is because of the two very good performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Both have worked with the director before and bring a respectability to their roles. It’s a shame that they could only buoy the film, rather than enhance it.

Soderbergh has teamed up with producer, and former Hollywood titan, Jerry Weintraub (Ocean’s trilogy), once again to create a portrait of one of the hidden relationships of the closeted Liberace. Working from a script by Richard LaGravenese, who adapted Scott Thorson’s memoir of the same name, Soderbergh has fallen mightily since his masterpiece Traffic. He tries to convey himself to the public as this grand artist, but the last 13 years, and more importantly this film, he’s either made consumerist schlock, mind-numbing melodramas, or just good ol’ fashion bad films.

There are hints of the technical genius he once possessed, but that’s few and far between in this film. There’s one shot that harkens back to Out of Sight. As Scott Thorson, Damon, arrives with his pal to see a Liberace, Douglas, performance in Vegas, Soderbergh uses a crane shot and lights it in a brooding darkness. The only real color, or lighting, are the candle lights on the audiences’ tables. This is in juxtaposition to the brilliantly lit stage Liberace, and his costumes, makes his arrival on. It’s a grand shot that’s thematically appropriate for such a grand introduction to a character.

However, that’s about it for the interesting cinematography. As the film marches forward, Soderbergh usually depends on medium shots or close-ups. His shots are so static, yet they don’t rev up the creepiness of the tale, they sink in monotony. The director, who once brilliantly used filters to convey theme and emotion in Traffic, uses a muted-brown filter for the scenes filmed in Thorson’s foster parents’ house because the parents are somewhat rural and homely. This is cliche at best and rather lazy work. Soderbergh has regressed into a filmmaker who just points a camera at his subjects and lets them do the heavy lifting.

Damon somehow makes you forget that he’s supposed to be playing a 17-year-old in the beginning scenes of the film. He’s excellent at portraying an innocent and sweet kid that would otherwise, in lesser hands, be made to look weak. The transformation of Thorson’s character from a star-crossed kid to jilted, cynical man is really something the audience can identify with. What makes us continue to understand and sympathize with Thorson, even as he becomes hooked on drugs, is that he always has Liberace’s best interests at heart.

Thorson wants, as any young adult would, to go out and have a good time, but Liberace refuses to go to the casinos, clubs, restaurants, etc. because he is firmly trapped in the closet. Thorson becomes more and more trapped in a mansion that’s style is “palatial kitsch” (one could say that’s the film’s as well). The mansion is an extension of Liberace: loud, ostentatious, and a prison. His eagerness to please the controlling Liberace has the reverse effect it intended to have. Instead of getting closer, or really reconciling with Liberace, Thorson becomes increasingly disenchanted with his creepy, out-of-control, and much older lover. Yet, he always looks out and protects the showman.

Douglas is at his best when he plays one of the following: an asshole, a womanizer, or a control freak. In the role of Liberace, Douglas gets to portray all of these characteristics (of course substituting womanizer for the gay equivalent). Douglas’s Liberace is a wolf, not unlike pedophile Catholic priests or middle-age men who trade their wife in for a 20-something bombshell, who prays on young, innocent men. His voice isn’t really that good, it sounds like Michael Douglas pinching his voice with a gay lisp, but that’s quickly forgotten as you see him sink his teeth in the role.

Liberace, the vain man he was, is constantly trying to get and appear younger. He says in the film, before he gets plastic surgery because he didn’t like the way he looked on an appearance of The Tonight Show, “I look like Dorian Gray disintegrating out there!” He even makes Thorson get plastic surgery, because what 19-year-old doesn’t need some work done. Creepy more so because he wanted Thorson to get the surgery so he would look like a younger version of himself. He constantly berates Scott, and another lover earlier in the film, that nothing he does is good enough for anyone. That everyone just wants to take from him and bleed him dry. It becomes evident that this is exactly what the piano player does to young males. Liberace is the perfect blend of Dan Gallagher, Gordon Gekko, and Nicholas Van Orton.

These two actors are the heartbeat of this comatose film. They alone convey the themes of what it really means to be someone’s companion and lover, control within a relationship, and vanity. It should be said that Rob Lowe is excellent, and nearly unrecognizable, in an extended cameo as a plastic surgeon who looks like a cross between Michael Jackson and Kim Kardashian. LaGravenese, who wrote The Fisher King, dashes the film with a bit of humor, but the story is pretty much a cut-and-dry romance melodrama. It should also be said that Douglas channels his inner Burger King the morning following the couple’s first night together. It might be one of the creepiest shots and scenes in years.

The only thing that separates this from other romances are the gay scenes between Damon and Douglas, and there are a lot of them. I have to say the scenes, for the most part, weren’t done just to show a gay couple making love. The scenes were sometimes loving and sometimes rough, but they never felt unnecessary like they were in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. It’s actually a sight to see these two manly men, and in Douglas’s case a male sex icon, dive right into these roles. If you were offended by Brokeback Mountain then it’s recommended that you don’t watch this film because it’s the gayest piece of entertainment since the group Erasure.

The film is HBO’s most matched movie since 2004′s Something the Lord Made, a vastly superior film, and is the first cable movie to be eligible for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s historic for these reasons and maybe a harbinger for how the festival circuit chooses its entrants and that maybe, one day, a film premiering on a cable station may be eligible for the Academy Awards. Everyone involved should get a pat on the back for giving the proverbial finger to the studio system, the film was deemed “too gay” for them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great film.

As we watch two actors at the height of their powers, maybe Soderbergh is that aging athlete who just can’t “go” anymore. Maybe it’s the right time to hang up the jersey.