In director Todd Haynes’ difficult-to-admire May December, the characters inhabit the upscale surroundings of Savannah, Georgia. And yet the dramatic atmosphere is so brittle, the personalities might as well be acting out their frustrations in a rehearsal diagram, or even on a giant chessboard.
Actor Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman) visits the comfortable home of the woman she’s scheduled to portray in a TV drama, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), with the task of preparing for the upcoming role by living with Gracie for a few days; getting to know her subject and prying into her story. It is established that Gracie is a scandalous figure. She’s the matron who, a few years earlier, dumped her husband and children after falling in love with Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), a seventh-grade schoolboy she met in a pet shop. Their ill-starred romance and ultimate marriage triggered criminal charges, plus instant froth on the covers of supermarket gossip magazines.
And now, as the hasty-looking screenplay—by writers Samy Burch (The Hunger Games) and Alex Mechanik (Ant-Man)—would have it, the nervous, easily distracted Gracie is seemingly basking in the sort of gaudy, middle-aged notoriety that pretty much guarantees a future of heartbreak and court appearances.
In other words, veteran filmmaker Haynes (Carol, Mildred Pierce, I’m Not There, The Karen Carpenter Story) is back in the dumpster again, sorting through the “celebrity” trash in search of vicarious cheap thrills with unreliable protagonists. In that respect, May December stirs up a witches’ cauldron of prurient possibilities salted with ironic laughs. But there’s not quite enough of the latter.
Haynes and his cast don’t seem to enjoy the experience. Gracie and Elizabeth’s slo-mo, would-be catfight might be better served with a more generous sprinkling of humor to decorate its grim discoveries. Instead, the two women circle each other warily, walking on eggshells while preening themselves in the nearest mirror.
Gracie attends a gardening workshop and talks endlessly about herself. Elizabeth essentially follows suit, and her wandering eye temporarily settles on poor Joe—at this stage an insecure young man who appears to have been relegated to hired-help status in Gracie’s pecking order, misplaced amid her loony entourage and content to spend his time raising Monarch butterflies. The prevailing tone is one of artificial conviviality and manufactured cable TV-style family togetherness. The net effect is airless and suffocating.
Actors Moore and Portman play types they’re very familiar with—from previous work in more inspired projects—but here with no special spark of enthusiasm, aside from Elizabeth’s subdued sexuality and Gracie’s frantic quest for emotional reinforcement. In their tight little sphere of operations, makeup qualifies as a character trait.
Meanwhile the bedraggled members of Gracie’s extended family pass in review: her horrid son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), disappointed daughter Honor Atherton-Yoo (Piper Curda), the reticent adopted immigrant twins (Gabriel Chung, Elizabeth Yu) and Joe’s taciturn father (Kelvin Han Yee), quietly holding onto his meal ticket. Nobody at all to either cheer or feel sorry for, just a standard-brand collection of entitled hangers-on in a pathetic, ingrown environment. The added-on wrinkle concerning rumors that Gracie has had incestuous longings for family members is thankfully glossed over in a short bit of dialogue.
Audiences with an established taste for campy female-centric entertainment may be faintly reminded of Valley of the Dolls, The Big Cube or even the far reaches of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) or Fassbinder’s avatar Douglas Sirk (particularly All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind).
But as May December peters out, it’s inescapable that filmmaker Haynes, ordinarily a competent stylist with a flair for stressed-out heroines, went shopping for the wrong story in the wrong place. It’s hard to imagine how an audience could develop even the most casual interest in Gracie and Elizabeth’s nervous little dance. Skip May December and catch up on the John Waters catalog instead—particularly Female Trouble.
In theaters and on Netflix.