Lovely, Still

Holiday fable, rated PG3

Lovely, Still is a movie with a secret. To really get at the heart of this film, I'd have to tell you the secret, but that would ruin the experience of viewing this intriguing debut by Nicholas Fackler. I could lead you to believe that the film is nothing but a sweet, albeit offbeat, romantic comedy about two older people, but that would be a serious distortion of the facts. The shadow of something large and likely sinister hovers over each frame of this film, from the moment we open on Overture Street, where every house is lit for Christmas.

Robert Malone, played with charm and depth by Martin Landau, lives alone. His house is devoid of family life: his walls are pocked with empty picture hooks, and he doesn't have much  furniture. The light, however, is warm as we enter his living room, where he is affixing a gift tag to a wrapped box: 'To Robert, from Robert.' It's the only present under the decorated Christmas tree. Landau sags sad and tired in Robert's skin. Every move he makes seems rote yet somehow noble for the force of psychic will and physical effort it requires. His dreamscapes are painterly reds and blues, firing synapses, fragments of images and sound. He wakes each day bewildered and then resigned to being alive, still. Fackler shows us Robert's morning ablutions through a forced perspective in which we become his mirror. He flosses, brushes, gargles, shaves, and slicks back his thin white hair with his hands. When he leaves his house to walk to his job at a grocery store, he is so distracted by the sight of a moving van across the street that he forgets to shut his front door. Robert's manager, Mike (Adam Scott of Party Down and Parks and Recreation), is a jerk reminiscent of David Brent or Michael Scott—the bosses in BBC's and NBC's The Office, respectively. He attempts to get Robert involved in a pyramid scheme to sell Christmas cookbooks but seems to have real affection for his elderly employee; he even offers him a ride home. Robert declines in favor of walking. His take on other people is simultaneously passive and curious, as if he's not entirely sure he should believe what he hears—or he has stopped listening. Has he seen so much in his lifetime that everything now is just noise? The movie's tone alternates between surreal, darkly comic, and bleak until Robert meets Mary (the stunning, incomparable Ellen Burstyn), the woman who has moved in across the street with her adult daughter, Alex (Elizabeth Banks).

Robert and Mary begin spending time together, to Alex's concern. Landau and Burstyn play their parts as two starry-eyed adolescents in the throes of first love. They fall hard and fast for each other in just a few days. Some of these scenes border on saccharine, but Fackler has this well under control. Just as the film flirts with settling for happiness, the tone shifts, funhouse style, and fairly begs the question of just what is going on here. Is Mary unhinged in her willingness to fall instantly in love with this sad old man? Is she on some kind of medication? What is it about her that energizes Robert and gives him the gait of a man half his age? When out of each other's presence, each appears racked with self-doubt. Robert obsesses over his telephone, checking the dial tone and willing her to call. Without her, he's lost, worse off than when we met him because now he is desperately in love. 

At first the rips are small. A knowing glance here, a yellow Post-it there. A sense that something bad is about to happen. The rips become tears. The gun introduced in the first act goes off in the third, and when the movie comes apart at its seams, there is a moment of betrayal for the viewer who has been tricked, even cruelly deceived. But forgiveness is swift because there's no unlearning the truth. Consider that reality is relative. How one person perceives the world is not how another perceives the world, even though both perceptions might be correct. And no two people experience an event, a relationship, or even a passing emotion in exactly the same way. All of the actors in Lovely, Still are excellent. Scott's performance in particular is incredibly nuanced. The talented Banks at first feels underused, but in hindsight her casting appears ingeniously subversive. Burstyn and Landau act over any lingering holes in the logic of the film. Is the structure ultimately literal or metaphoric? For some, the two must remain inextricable. 

This review originally appeated in Pasatiempo on 09/24/2010