NYFF Review: The Troubles of a “May December” Romance

NYFF Review: The Troubles of a “May December” Romance

Though they never went away, the strange mystique and fervor of a blockbuster tabloid story rife with scandalous sexuality and intrigue seem less impactful and almost commonplace in the social media age. The power these stories had in the mid to late 90s was unmatched. SNL sketches and TV movies of the week based on escapades of Amy Fisher and Mary Kay Letourneau were all the rage. The laters tale is somewhat of an inspiration (though the young screenwriter will tell you she still has no idea who that is) for the tale of May December, the Todd Haynes helmed opening night film of the 61st annual New York Film Festival.

Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) are preparing for a summer BBQ at their lovely and packed home. As the preparations are still underway with many guests already around, chatter emerges about the world famous actress who will be attending the get pretty average get together. Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) will be in attendance to observe Gracie and her family as she prepares to portray the family’s matriarch in a new film based on their famous past.

@Courtesy of Netflix

Twenty years earlier, Gracie entered into a relationship with her now husband, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). At the time though, Gracie was 36 years old, and Joe was in 7th grade, working part time at the pet store Gracie also worked at. She was sent to prison, pregnant with Joe’s child. Giving birth behind bars, Gracie re-established her life with Joe after her release and the two have been living happily with three children ever since. Or so it seems.

May December is an odd duck in all aspects. The film portrays itself as a parody of times, getting laughs from its quirky pokes at the network TV version of the story it doesn’t want to be. While those moments are intended to be funny and elicit laughs, it creates a very unbalanced nature to the flow of the story. Especially if you enter the film with no knowledge of what the story is. 

The first moment of melodramatic foolery as the tense score swells with murder mystery punctuations as the camera zooms into Gracie as she worryingly stares down the shelves of her refrigeration calmly exclaiming, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” is certainly silly and entertaining, but a lone occurrence for the first quarter of the film. The gap between this instance and the next similar one is so large, it’s hard to tell if anyone questioned how it would be perceived. 

@Courtesy of Netflix

If there is one word that would best describe May December it would be; unbalanced. A film doesn’t need to have one singular focus that is the one and only point of interest being explored. But there needs to be clarity on what the story wants to convey. I still don’t know if May December is supposed to be a witty look at tabloid culture, an investigation into the way the media portrays those events, a dissection of method acting, or a closer look into family dynamics. Those are just four examples of some of the topics May December seemingly investigates, it doesn’t really stop there.

The three main performances are all fascinating. Julianne Moore gives a brilliant performance that lays on the outskirts of what traditionalist would call a complicated character. Though, there is a tricky and confusing aspect to a lisp that she lends to the characters. It was all but unperceivable until a scene between her and Portman in the bathroom at a restaurant, nearly at the end of the film. The final 30 minutes of the film then all of a sudden feature Moore and Portman (as Elizabeth starts to formally introduce her portrayal of Gracie) are then just seeped in this speech impediment that was not at all noticeable until then.

@Courtesy of Netflix

Charlie Melton really shines through near the end of the film. His calm and laid back demeanor through the first 60 minutes are great on their own. There is no need for exuberant outbursts or any non-subtle deliveries to make a great performance. But the way he melds that almost stoic presence into the outwardly emotional and sharing version of Joe at the end of the film that really mark the work of an exemplary performance.

All in all, May December isn’t a waste of the viewer’s time, but it’s lacking in a lot of places that are more important than it thinks. Lazily places metaphors of growing up/adapting to life by way of butterflies and late coming additions of the old sly fox and slippery snakes do very little to help elevate May December over better tabloid driven explorations we’ve already seen.

Final Grade: C+

Check out more of Matthew’s articles. 

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