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Hard Pill
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by David Cornelius

"One hell of a what-if."
4 stars

It feels so very weird to say this, considering that one is a low-budget indie drama and the other is a special effects-laden sci-fi spectacular, but it’s all too true anyway: “Hard Pill” is the movie “X-Men: The Last Stand” wanted to be but couldn’t.

“X-Men,” you no doubt recall, was a failed grab at social commentary in which superhero mutants are tempted with a “cure” that would remove their powers and return them to normal; it was, among other things, an attempt to examine how some in this world view homosexuality as a disease that can be treated and removed. “Hard Pill” dials down the science fiction but presents the same curious scenario: what if someone made a pill that could cure gayness?

The result here is a daring, captivating exercise in “what if” that succeeds because it focuses entirely on the personal experience. Tim (Jonathan Slavin) is a gay man with plenty of friends but a disappointing love life; tired of a culture that prefers looks over personality and sex over love, he’s worked himself into a deep funk, just in time for his thirty-third birthday. Maybe he’d be happier if he were straight? Why not? After all, women are always flirting with him, while men always pass him by.

So he signs up for an experimental drug that will suppress all homosexual tendencies and leave you straight as an arrow. And for a while, he’s happy - he’s hooked up with a lovely new girlfriend (Jennifer Elise Cox) and cleared his life of the excess baggage that came with clingy relationships (most notably a highly confusing one with his straight best friend). Needless to say, things do not remain happy.

The simple reason “Hard Pill” works is because of its focus on character. Writer/director John Baumgartner shows a sharp eye for capturing the realism within the fantastic; these are all actual people with actual problems, and were a pill like this actually introduced into our own world, it would indeed affect not only those taking the medicine, but everyone around them, too. The script (assisted with heavy dialogue improvisation by the cast, adding yet another layer of “real” sensibility) fills itself with complicated relationships, of which Tim is the center. Sally (Susan Slome) is Tim’s best gal friend, and it’s so very natural that her love for Tim would lead to an immediate connection once Tim starts taking the drug. Yet that connection fades as Tim moves on. There’s a truth to this relationship and its evolution that hits hard, a collision whose impact depends on strong writing and even stronger acting. “Hard Pill” supplies both.

Other relationships struggle as well - we watch, for instance, as Tim’s promiscuous friend Joey (Scotch Ellis Loring) begins to want more in his own love life, a desire set off as he sees what the pill is doing to Tim. This is a striking counter-story that supports Tim’s adventures expertly.

It’s notable that in working with this scenario, Baumgartner avoids dealing with the people who could, assuming this story to be true, actually benefit from such a pill. (Or, at least, the people whom the drug companies would claim would benefit.) Instead, he focuses on the kind of person who would in fact try such a thing despite it being a very bad idea: people, like Tim, who struggle to convince themselves that such a change would equal instant happiness. As such, it becomes not only an essay on homosexuality in the modern age, but it also gets to be a satire on the drug industry at large, companies that feed off the notion that you can always be better if you take a pill, never mind if you actually need it.

Lest you think that all this thoughtfulness and deep personal interplay leaves “Hard Pill” a dry, heavy drama, understand that the film comes with a playful side, most notable in an on-screen “sexuality meter” that gauges each character’s place on the sexual spectrum. It’s clever stuff (and helps set up a masterful punchline in one scene), and Baumgartner sprinkles plenty of lighter, witty moments like this throughout his picture. It’s a delicate balance, but it works, and “Hard Pill” winds up being biting, funny, heartbreaking, and witty all at once.

(This review has been reprinted with kind permission from DVD Talk and the author, who is me. For details on the DVD release, please visit www.DVDTalk.com.)

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15634&reviewer=392
originally posted: 12/31/06 15:45:15
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USA
  23-May-2006 (NR)
  DVD: 23-May-2006

UK
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