Brokeback Mountain

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/04/06 16:24:13

"A boring mess, and one of the year's biggest disappointments."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Maybe it’s just a reaction to all the hype, but I find myself curiously underwhelmed by “Brokeback Mountain.” What was supposed to be a Love Story For the Ages as presented by master director Ang Lee turned out instead to be a sluggish, unconvincing mess. Its forced drama, rickety character development, and lethargic pacing make it a chore to watch, while several plot turns, which border on the melodramatic, brought back memories of a certain beloved-by-many-yet-unwatchable-by-me Cary Grant feature; yes, my friends, “Brokeback Mountain” is, at its very core, nothing more than this generation’s “An Affair To Remember.”

That feature (which gets more heat from my direction than the movie it remade, 1939’s “Love Story,” simply because the later film is far more well known and far more unwatchable) dragged its characters through the most ridiculous of situations, all in order to keep them apart for dramatic purposes (can’t have unrequited love if they’re easily together and, well, requiting everything). “Brokeback” does the same thing - albeit more convincingly, considering the two leads are gay men who first meet in Wyoming in the early 1960s, not exactly the best time and place for gay men to be. But as the story rolls on (ever so slowly, making the 144-minute running time feel twice as long), progressing us through the decades, we discover that it is not the era nor the locale that’s keeping them apart, but their own decisions. We’re told at first that they hide their relationship to avoid violence from neighbors, yet by the closing credits, we’re certain that it’s more a matter of one character refusing himself his own joy, unable to show emotion toward anyone, not just the man he loves.

In another film, this might work wonders, an examination of why a man would deny his own heart. But here, everything’s so unconvincing. We never quite believe that Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) actually have the feelings for one another that the movie keeps telling us they have. I blame this not on the performances - although the casting is a major problem (more on that in a bit) - but on the story itself. The screenplay, by Larry McMurtry and frequent McMurtry collaborator Diana Ossana (and adapting the short story by Annie Proulx), never lets us see the relationship develop to the point of true romance. It’s more physical. All the times over the years that Ennis sneaks out to be with Jack, the feeling is that of a booty call. Sure, they like hanging out, fishing, camping, etc., but their encounters come across entirely of “Hey! I’ve finally found a gay man in 1963 Wyoming! Just so I won’t have to go through the pain of trying to find someone else, I suppose you’ll do!” Their longings for each other seem less of the heart and more of the genitals. And it’s hard to make a Love Story For the Ages about a couple of fuck buddies.

And when you’re not that interested in the heart of the story, it’s easier to spot its problems. Consider the simplistic nature of the screenplay. The plot, which covers approximately two decades of these men’s lives, has both men getting married in attempts to “normalize” their lives by hiding their homosexuality. The story paints in too-broad strokes. Ennis winds up married to a frumpy housewife (literally colorless - the costumer dresses her in drab browns and greys to punctuate the point), and in several scenes, we see Ennis overwhelmed with two screaming infants. Jack, meanwhile, marries the rich daughter of a farm equipment magnate, a soulless relationship on the other end of the spectrum. So one becomes super poor, the other super rich. It’s a strained plot point that’s grasping at meaningfulness, but keeps falling short. To make up for the gaps, the movie continues to poke us in the ribs, shouting, “Get it?! They’re unhappy!! Get it now??!!”

Playing the roles of the wives are Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. Both characters are driven into the background - Hathaway especially, as the only character development we get from her is her ever-changing wig, which exists to show the passage of time. Don’t know what kind of woman Jack wound up marrying, but I do know she liked the beehive as a hair statement. Williams is given more to do (she’s the frumpy one who discovers Ennis’ secret and must live with it), and to her credit, she pulls off a wonderful performance despite the lack of decent material with which to work. But despite the fine acting, her character remains a one-noter, a cheap outline of repressed emotion.

You may have noticed that all four of these stars are quite young - the oldest is Ledger, at 26. Which is fine when we first meet their characters, but at things progress, and the story keeps jumping ahead in the years, we get stuck watching the indie film equivalent of a high school play: slap on a fake moustache, spray a little fake grey on the temples, and presto! Jake Gyllenhaal is now all old and stuff! Hathaway, with her single-digit character, is the worst here, perpetually looking 23, no matter how high her wigs dare to go. (Worse, the timeline reveals the film ends when the characters are in their late thirties, yet the cheap makeup is done to suggest they’re in their fifties.)

That’s a major misstep, and a major distraction. How can we become involved in this romance when we’re too busy laughing at Gyllenhaal’s moustache?

It’s all too much. There’s a lot to want to like about this movie - Lee’s visuals (especially shots of the mammoth Wyoming frontier) are quite stunning; fine performances from the supporting players, such as Randy Quaid and Linda Cardellini, make the story a bit more bearable; Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score is achingly beautiful - but there’s a lot more to dislike. It’s a hackneyed, underdeveloped melodrama disguised as serious art house fare. I can’t even commend it on the daringness of its subject matter; yes, a gay romance is risky for mainstream America, but Lee mostly plays it all too safely (right down to the double standard of nudity, which here offers female breasts aplenty, but nary a male member in sight).

The purpose of a romance is to get the audience to care about its characters. “Brokeback Mountain” fails at this, content with having one-dimensional people inhabit a soap opera world. It might look pretty, but that’s all surface stuff. Lee’s film is too empty, too uninvolving, and just plain too dull.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.