What to Watch This Weekend 9/24/21

"Rabbit Hole," "Death at a Funeral," and "Venus"

What to Watch This Weekend 9/24/21

It’s a three-for-one Friday: Three recommendations of worthwhile older movies, all available for streaming, to make up for two terrible new movies debuting today.

The terrible ones are “The Starling,” a Netflix Original, and “Dear Evan Hansen,” an adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical that is opening theatrically (no VOD date has yet been announced). Both address grief and grieving, and both fumble the assignment in ways that had me at times recoiling from the screen. “The Starling” stars Chris O’Dowd (who’s very good) and Melissa McCarthy (who does her best) as parents who have lost a baby girl to SIDS; the tragedy has sent the husband into psychiatric lockdown and caused the wife to seek therapy in the form of a kindly veterinarian played by Kevin Kline (lightly grimacing in aesthetic pain). The script and direction triangulate between jokey, cutesy, and maudlin, and the soundtrack is a steamroller of perky pop songs and glutinous orchestral uplift. Avoid.

Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in “Dear Evan Hansen”

“Dear Evan Hansen” is more skillfully done, but somehow that just exposes the story’s built-in flaws. The plot is built around a well-intentioned but cruel act of gaslighting: High schooler Evan Hansen (played by a notably post-grad Ben Platt) is mistakenly believed to have befriended a recent teen suicide and, because he doesn’t want to upset the boy’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) and because he has the hots for the dead kid’s sister (Kaitlyn Dever), he perpetuates the ruse until he becomes a social-media sensation of sensitive compassion, which the production celebrates (in the climactic Act I number “You Will Be Found”) until it doesn’t.

If you come to the film without having seen the Broadway production, you may wonder why on earth it was a hit. The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land”) are genuinely appealing, though — aural cream cheese with a sad nougaty center — and Platt and company sing the hell out of them. The story flatters its mostly youngish fans with the message that all of us are broken, unseen, and special. But where the artifice of a stage production can function as a protective shell, taking this story out into a real cinematic world just leaves it twisting unappealingly in the wind.

Are there any good, watchable, honest films about grief? I can think of one: “Rabbit Hole,” from 2010, an adaptation of a play (ha) by David Lindsay-Abaire about a couple trying to put their life back together after their young son has died. What makes the difference? Dialogue that locates the bleak comedy of carrying on and the absurdity of outsiders ever understanding the depth of loss, direction by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) that swerves away from empty sentiment, and a performance by Nicole Kidman that’s close to a career best, which is saying something. As her husband, Aaron Eckhart works at the top of his range; there’s a scene where he shows the couple’s house to prospective buyers and scares them off when he gets to the kid’s room that’s burned into my brain. “Rabbit Hole” can be rented on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube. It’s not an easy watch but it’s a good one, and it doesn’t play the audience for saps.

If that’s too much of a downer, opt for “Death at a Funeral,” which takes grief and turns it into door-slamming farce. Rent the 2006 British original directed by Frank Oz, please, and not the 2010 American remake directed by Neil Labute – they’re not that far apart, but the earlier film has the wonderful Alan Tudyk as the boyfriend who ends up naked and tripping on the roof. Both versions feature a pre-“Game of Thrones” Peter Dinklage in a particularly sacrilegious role, but the original has Matthew Macfadyen, halfway between the hunkitude of Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” and the cravenness of Tom Wambsgans in HBO’s “Succession,” as the diffident hero, trying to hold together a solemn family event that’s spinning wildly out of control. It’s on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube.

One final note pertaining to mourning and passing: The British film director Roger Michell died this week at 65, of undisclosed causes. He was best known for the 1999 Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant hit “Notting Hill,” which for a time was the highest-grossing British movie in history, but his larger filmography was more than occasionally worthy. Michell directed a 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” that was beloved then and remains so today – I can still see Ciarán Hinds pining away as Captain Wentworth – and two of his movies addressed the emotional lives and physical lusts of older characters with sympathy and daring.

I’m thinking of “The Mother” (2003), with Anne Reid — the cozy character actor of TV’s “Sanditon” and “Last Tango in Halifax” — as a middle-aged woman besotted with a younger lover (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), and “Venus” (2006), one of the last great roles for Peter O’Toole as a fading stage legend whose lechery gives way to something like grace. Hanif Kureishi wrote both movies and should rightly be considered their co-author. “The Mother” is unavailable for streaming, more’s the pity, but “Venus” can be streamed on Hoopla and rented on Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube, and it’s a must – the final Oscar nomination (of eight!) that should have rightly settled on this great, roistering reprobate of the movies. Late in “Venus,” a subsidiary character comes across a photo of the young O’Toole and gasps, “God, he was beautiful.” And, God, he was.

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