Uncle Frank review – top form Paul Bettany lifts phony Alan Ball drama

A heartfelt performance from the British actor elevates an otherwise trite and frustrating story about an alcoholic gay professor in the 1970s

A new synonym for the phrase “elevating the material” was born at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is “Paul Bettany in Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank”.

The London-born actor, busy of late with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but still the same man who wowed us earlier in his career, is achingly good as the kind and wise alcoholic gay professor closeted to his family in this otherwise frustratingly mediocre movie. The heartfelt richness of his performance has you wiping the tears from your cheek one moment, then those moist eyes immediately get rolling from the contrived and fundamentally phony storyline. It is a frustrating filmgoing experience, but still one worthy of your time for the acting alone.

When we first meet Uncle Frank, it’s at the large, rural home of the Bledsoe family. While the women fuss in the kitchen, the men, led by rage case Daddy Mack (Stephen Root), watch football and yell at the kids. Frank, thin and mustachioed, is in the screened-in porch, reading a book and happy to chat with our narrator, Beth (Sophia Lillis). She is a thoughtful and “different” girl, and Frank encourages her to always be herself. Four years later, in 1973, her grades get her out of Creekview, South Carolina to New York University, where Frank teaches literature.

In New York we learn something about never-married Uncle Frank. No, it’s not that the evocatively dressed Jewish woman is his secret long-term girlfriend as he has fibbed, it’s that he’s been living with a man (Peter Macdissi) named Wally.

“Do you know what ‘gay’ means?” Frank asks a dumbstruck Beth, who speechlessly nods yes. She certainly is surprised, but is also immediately accepting, and agrees to keep this quiet from the rest of the family. She’s also enchanted by Walid, aka Wally, a Saudi Arabian ex-pat, vivacious without being campy, and the warm home they keep, filled with books and music and an iguana named Rita Hayworth.

But soon the phone rings and it’s Momma (Margo Martindale). Daddy Mack has kicked the bucket so our movie downshifts into road picture as our unlikely but enlightened trio drive through the deep south. It is impossible, especially during motel scenes, not to think about Green Book. (Despite the best picture Oscar, this is quite far from a compliment.)

As the trip continues we slip into Frank’s memory (despite this being Beth’s narration) and watch the tragedy of his first love and the psychological, hell-raising abuse he received from his father. Involving far fewer shifts in the timeline but just as upsetting is a scene where Wally calls his mother from a phone booth, eight time zones away, just wishing to hear her voice. He is literally in a box, separated from people he loves because of bigotry.

The plot artifices grow as the film moves on, first the wake, the funeral then the reading of the will. Cruelty from beyond the grave causes Frank to fall off the wagon, and suddenly this is a chase movie. Despite it all, Bettany and Macdissi express the tragic anguish felt when someone is forced to hide from family (or, in Wally’s case, a nation) for just being who they are. Though set 47 years ago, it’s a hardship still endured by far too many.

And then the movie ramps up to its trite conclusion. Though some at the Sundance premiere applauded the lightning-speed story beats, others muttered “give me a break”. For each touching moment drawn from something resembling real life, there’s one right behind it that’s counterfeit.

Alan Ball has not directed a feature film since Towelhead in 2007, though has seven successful seasons of True Blood under his belt. It’s a bit passé to suggest a divide in quality between TV and movies right now, but one look at Uncle Frank and you can see why Ball has found greater purchase on the plot-propelling, smaller screen medium. More character-driven opportunities for Bettany, however, are always welcome.

  • Uncle Frank is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced

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