Friday, March 22, 2019

Gloria Bell: A toneless ring

Gloria Bell (2019) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexuality, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Director Alfred Hitchcock famously observed that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”

This film is nothing but life’s dull bits.

When Arnold (John Turturro) and Gloria (Julianne Moore) check into a fancy Las Vegas
hotel/casino, she expects they're about to enjoy a romantic weekend. She really should
know better, by this point in her own movie...
As therefore should be expected, it’s slow, tedious, monotonous and unrelentingly boring.

Director/co-scripter Sebastián Lelio’s approach is no-frills cinéma vérité: We essentially eavesdrop on a fiftysomething woman going about a longstanding routine involving work, family, down time and all the other minutia of a (more or less) average life. Singing to the car radio, while driving to and from work. Efficiently doing her job. Enduring an upstairs neighbor from hell. And so forth.

It feels very much like real life. Indeed, totally feels like real life. Which is rather silly, because most folks go to the movies to escape real life. Why spend money to endure 102 insufferable minutes of stuff that confronts us on a daily basis?

Nor does it help much, that our character — Gloria Bell — is portrayed by an actress as incandescent as Julianne Moore. The subtleties of her performance are sublime; numerous little moments convey a stunning wealth of emotions. Even so, it’s hard to do more than admire her talent and craft: “Wow, that’s a terrific bit of acting from Julianne Moore.”

We still don’t give a damn about Gloria Bell.

Particularly since this slice of her life — an American remake of Lelio’s 2013 Chilean film, Gloria — manipulates her in a manner that seems wholly inconsistent with how she’s introduced.

Gloria, 12 years divorced, lives alone in an apartment beneath the unit occupied by the landlady’s clearly unstable adult son, who shrieks incoherently at all hours of the day and night. (Nothing ever gets done about him.) Gloria occasionally returns home to find that a cat — always the same cat, of unknown origin — has somehow sneaked inside again. (We never learn how.)

She works as an insurance claims adjuster; her phone manner is calm, soothing and helpful. We imagine she gets terrific customer service ratings. She has a co-worker (Barbara Sukowa, as Melinda) who frets about their company’s meager retirement plan, and worries that she’ll have to work until she’s 80. Late in the film, Gloria helps Melinda exit the office. (Has she been fired? Departed of her own volition? We never know.)

Gloria has two adult children. Married son Peter (Michael Cera) has been abandoned by his wife, who has “gone to the desert to find herself”; he’s left to care for their infant child. Gloria’s daughter Anne (Caren Pistorius) has fallen in love with a Swedish surfer, who has dropped into Los Angeles only long enough to catch some extreme waves.

Gloria gamely tries stuff: exercise classes, group laughter therapy, yoga sessions. She doesn’t stay at home; this is good. Mostly, though, she frequents singles bars filled with men and women of her generation, who mingle and dance to period disco tunes. Gloria loves music — loves to sing — and, most particularly, loves to dance. By herself, with a casual stranger; doesn’t matter.

Point being, she’s a strong, intelligent, successfully independent woman. Also lonely, likely quietly depressed, given that she inserts herself just a little too much into her children’s’ lives.

It’s therefore no surprise that Gloria perks up during one of her nightly club visits, when Arnold (John Turturro) shows interest. He’s more recently divorced — only a year — and clearly unaccustomed to the singles scene. They go home together; they begin a relationship.

Except … except …

Turturro, throughout his entire career, has radiated an aura of subtle menace: not his fault, it’s just the way he looks, moves and breathes. Arnold’s initial approach to Gloria therefore feels predatory, and Lelio does nothing to quell this impression; we half suspect the guy is an ax murderer. Actually, he’s worse: he’s a failure-to-launch divorcé still tethered to his ex-wife and deadbeat adult daughters, all of whom call constantly, knowing that he’ll drop everything to “fix” their latest faux crisis.

In short, he’s a loser; this couldn’t be more obvious if the word were tattooed on his forehead. The point is driven home after an incident at a party to celebrate Peter’s birthday, when Gloria introduces Arnold to the rest of her family. And if this weren’t cue enough to head for the hills — which she wisely does — Arnold subsequently barrages her with a constant stream of his own whining phone calls.

We couldn’t ask for more evidence: The guy’s hopelessly unbalanced, and also a stalker. No way, no how, would a woman of Gloria’s wisdom and perception give this guy another chance.

And yet she does.

At which point, a film that “merely” has been insufferably boring, also becomes insufferably preposterous.

In theory, it’s refreshing to find a film that focuses on a sensitively depicted female character of an “advanced” age, whom Moore brings to such persuasive life; it sure doesn’t happen often. (Glenn Close’s recent performance in The Wife comes to mind.) Moore has always been fearless, and she doesn’t shy from this story’s almost painfully intimate encounters. (Yes, boys and girls; people over the age of 50 do make love.)

And there’s no question that Moore can light up a room, or effortlessly steal a scene; nothing matches those moments when one of her characters quietly assesses a person or situation, weighing data — we can sense the information being processed, and see it in her eyes — and then decides that the situation warrants one of her breathtaking, megawatt smiles. Sheer bliss.

If only Gloria Bell — and her movie — were worthy of such talent.

It too frequently feels as if Gloria is being jerked around — puppet on a string — by the contrived demands of a script that ceases to be tediously lackluster, only when it becomes absurdly manipulative.

Matters aren’t helped by Matthew Herbert’s plinkety-plunk, so-called score, which is beyond annoying.

On the positive end, Moore is surrounded by all manner of familiar faces in fleeting supporting roles. Holland Taylor is warmly gracious as Gloria’s mother; Rita Wilson and Alanna Ubach radiate loyalty as longstanding best friends. Brad Garrett is striking as Gloria’s ex-husband Dustin, perhaps only now realizing that he let something precious slip through his fingers. Pistorius has a great moment, when Anne finally allows the depth of her bond with Gloria to surface.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of Sean Astin’s appearance during a Las Vegas interlude: an ill-defined role that feels like a half-baked acting exercise.

Occasionally vivacious sidebar characters aside, Lelio’s film remains a torturously s-l-o-w journey to its final shot, which assures us that Gloria is — and always will be — just fine, thank you very much. Which is completely redundant, because we learn that, just as persuasively, at the beginning of the film. The “journey” serves no purpose.

So why tag along?

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