May December (2023)

Pop-culture obsession at heart of ‘May December’

What is it that stirs our fascination with other people’s lives at the expense of our own? Is it ennui? Or, something much more sinister? A dose of schadenfreude to fool ourselves into believing we are better than others? Those are but a few of the unanswerable questions skirting the edges of “May December,” Todd Haynes’ fictional take on a tabloid scandal that millions believed afforded free rein to pass judgment on arguably the most bizarre romance of the 1990s.

For the general populace, the shocking love affair between 12-year-old Vili Fualaau and his 34-year-old teacher, Mary Jo Letourneau, was a stimulant every bit as addictive as cocaine. And a habit easily fed by merely watching “Dateline” or picking up one of the dozens of magazines with the couple’s mugs splashed across the covers. No doubt, Vili and Mary Jo were good for commerce, but was it any of our business? No, but why let that get in the way of our “need” to know?

Like every “big” story, Vili and Mary Jo eventually faded from the headlines, ceding to the next tawdry transgression as the latter rightfully headed off to prison. But what became of them over the ensuing decades? That’s the framework for Samy Brunt’s highly original script about how well a scandal ages for the parties at the center and everyone in their orbit, be they a wronged ex-husband or deeply jaded, and understandably embarrassed, offspring.

This is the simmering quagmire a two-bit method actress voluntarily wades into to better understand the character she will be playing in a low-budget film she hopes will quash the shame of having sold herself out for the role of a superhero veterinarian on a mindless TV series. The fame Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth Berry has achieved is off the charts. Everyone knows her, and many teenage boys secretly lust for her. But status and esteem have thus far eluded her. Her ticket to reverence, she believes, is the retelling of the now two-decades-old story of how fellow pet shop workers, 36-year-old Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) and her 13-year-old “assistant,” Joe Yoo, became the talk of the nation.

This being her best, and perhaps only, shot at legitimacy, Elizabeth is convinced she must know Gracie inside and out. And what better way to do that than to shadow the woman she’s about to portray? First off, you wonder why Gracie would agree to such an intrusion now that she has gained a modicum of reputability. It’s a feeling that grows even stronger as Elizabeth peppers her with intimate questions about the past. But who’s really the victim, assuming there is one? Is it Gracie? Her now respected X-ray technician husband, Joe (a sensational Charles Melton)? Or, is it an unwitting Elizabeth? Might it be all three?

Haynes and Burch have fun with this deep dive into victimhood by crafting their film as a sort of fright flick in which Elizabeth suddenly finds herself trapped in a house of long-suppressed horrors. And the farther down the rabbit hole she falls, the more she discovers herself actually becoming Gracie. It’s a transformation that unfolds slowly and subtly until what was initially somewhat erotic evolves into something quite dark and disturbing. Clearly, the filmmakers are chasing a metaphor for how our own obsession with true crime and salacious behavior erodes our empathy and compassion to the point the misery of others becomes our entertainment. We are as zombified as Elizabeth.

It’s a powerful message, not to mention timely in this age of the Frankenstein monster we call social media, an outlet sapping our individuality to the degree we desire to become like those we are observing. It’s an equally impactful commentary on how many of us, like Joe, are averse to self-examination. Only now, as Joe at age 36 is about to become an empty-nester, does he begin to understand how much of himself he has sacrificed in service of Gracie’s insatiable neediness. Like the monarch butterflies he raises, he feels compelled to emerge from his chrysalis and take flight.

There’s a wonderful dialogue-free scene near the end when the camera closes in on Joe slowly dissolving into tears. Part of it is pride in his twins, Honor (Piper Curda) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung), receiving their high school diplomas, but it’s more about his sudden regret over missing out on one of the most seminal moments in a child’s life. In essence, he never got to be a kid. He was just an element of a very adult story in which he became a monkey in the zoo we call pop culture.

This is all a part of the brilliance Haynes (“Carol”) and Burch have created and enhanced with an ample amount of black humor. But except for that pivotal graduation scene, “May December” inexplicably maintains a cool distance, stifling the considerable humanity lurking beneath its clinical surface. Is it a fear of appearing sentimental, like Haynes’ previous movie, “Dark Waters”? It’s hard to say, but I found the picture difficult to embrace, despite superb work by the three leads and a top-notch crew headed by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt.

Ultimately, it’s a work of art to be admired more than adored, and the end result is an emotionally hollow experience. But that’s not to say that it won’t make you chuckle at a host of characters oblivious to the irony of their actions. I love that Haynes stages it in the vein of a TV soap, complete with Marcelo Zarvos’ clever musical cues portending doom. The heartiest laughs arrive early, as the family throws a Memorial Day picnic to welcome Elizabeth to their idyllic Tybee Island home. It’s a soiree intended to impress, but as Gracie opens the door to the fridge, the menacing music suggests something terrifying awaits. Gracie, to her horror, discovers Joe might not have bought enough hot dogs.

“May December” abounds with similar scenarios designed to toy with our deep-rooted perceptions of what a movie should deliver and what to expect of its characters. Traditionally, there’s a villain and a protagonist. But here, there is neither. In fact, everyone is a little of both, causing your loyalty and trust to repeatedly shift until we no longer know whom to believe. It’s an interesting cinematic scheme, but it ultimately generates confusion to the point of numbness. If that was Haynes’ intent, bravo. In the end, like Joe, we may be convinced things have turned out as well as can be expected. But there’s no shaking the feeling it could have been so much better.

Movie review

May December

Rating: R for language, graphic nudity, drug use, some sexual content

Cast: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Charles Melton and D.W. Moffett

Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Samy Burch

Runtime: 117 minutes

Where to see: On Netflix

Grade: B

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