The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is in theaters. Michael Douglas is starring in Solitary Man, coming soon. Opening today is A Single Man, with Colin Firth as a serious, solitary man—with a death wish.

Eight months after the accidental death of his younger lover Jim (Watchmen co-star Matthew Goode), college professor George Falconer feels he’s reached the end of the line. It’s 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is playing out, so everyone’s a bit fatalistic. But particularly George, who plans to end it all that day with a bullet to the head. First, however, there are the mundane practicalities to sort out before his dramatic exit, in the tastefully appointed cocoon of a home he shared with Jim in Santa Monica. These routines, however, throw him mildly off course, as he meets a handsome Latino hustler (model Jon Kortajarena) who takes life as it comes, sees an irritating neighbor (Big Love co-star Ginnifer Goodwin) in a different light while at the bank, and reconnects with his gin-swilling friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a fellow British expat who nurses an irresolvable crush on him. Offering a life-changing opportunity of a different sort, however, is one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who unexpectedly turns up outside his door.

Christopher Isherwood’s slender 1964 novel is a milestone in gay literature. Changing some of the particulars of the story the film pushes a reading of it as the author’s paranoid vision of his relationship with portrait artist Don Bachardy—they met when Isherwood, best known for the stories eventually adapted into the stage musical and film Cabaret, was 48 and Bachardy was 18. Their lifelong union, which ended only with Isherwood’s death in 1986, was the basis of last year’s moving documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story. Bachardy, now 75, consulted on the new film, which at its finest shares with its source George’s consuming, but quietly expressed, terror at being alone.

A Single Man peaks when Firth is doing very little. The slightly furtive way George folds shirts and rearranges his refrigerator speaks volumes about his fragile mental state, which he conceals with as stiff an upper lip as an Englishman can muster in the California sun. A spare and lovely score, by In the Mood for Love composer Shigeru Umebayashi, adds to this portrait, whose artist is very much the actor. Firth has never really added up for me—women (my wife included) adored him in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, and his stock-in-trade has been a string of romantic roles that tend to put his female co-stars in charge. Here, though, he holds the screen. Roles like this, with few big moments, are difficult to pull off, but Firth does so immaculately—you can’t take your eyes off him. The supporting parts are cast to offset his enriching gloom: Moore is fun in a rowdy Ab Fab way, with great 60s hair and couture, and About a Boy co-star Hoult, who’s now about a man, has eyes as blue and deep as swimming pools, suitable for George to fall into as the story takes a Death in Venice turn.

The film’s virtue is its rippling silence. Its vice is the artsy clutter that first-time director Tom Ford imposes upon it, not unexpectedly given his fashion design fame. Eduard Grau’s desaturated-to-glam cinematography, pegged to George’s changing mood, is too pat a device, and at times he packs too much stuff in the frame, unintentionally undercutting his lead. A star voiceover early on, delivering bad news on the phone, is another distraction, however much it fits the timeframe and the ambiance the movie is going for, and Hitchcock references are as played out as last year’s collections. Another Ford, John, would have disapproved. But he brings empathy to his labor-of-love project, and as long as A Single Man concentrates on its single man the film is rewarding.

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There are probably as many films about Orson Welles as there are films directed by him, including the 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America (Paul Shenar as Welles during the War of the Worlds radio broadcast fracas), 1994’s Ed Wood (Vincent D’Onofrio, adrift is late 50’s Hollywood), 1999’s Cradle Will Rock (Angus Macfadyen, staging Marc Blitzstein’s controversial musical piece), and 2001’s HBO film RKO 281 (Liev Schreiber, filming Citizen Kane). New York has recently seen two plays about him, Orson’s Shadow and the one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, which starred Christian McKay, who is now playing the great multi-hyphenate in Me and Orson Welles.

Portraying Welles as he directs the Mercury Theatre in a teetering Broadway production of Julius Caesar in 1937, McKay goes beyond impersonation, or acting. It’s more like reincarnation. How thrilling it is to be in the presence of his whipsaw talent again, in all its splendor and its tyranny, as he improvises his way out of tight spots and gets into more of them with its amazingly generous, and extravagantly terrible, behavior. One scene alone, where he reads a passage from Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons five years before be made the famously doomed film version, is enough to warm the cockles of a critic’s cold, cold heart. Ladies and gentlemen—this is Orson Welles.

The ”Me” is a problem. He, Richard (Zac Efron), is a callow high schooler who’d rather be in Julius Caesar than study it, and Welles, sensing a kindred daredevil spirit, gives him a small part. When the film is onstage, showing how the legendary production came together by the seat of its pants, it’s great fun, with colorful performances by Ben Chaplin as the egotistical George Coulouris, Eddie Marsan as the endlessly put-upon John Houseman, James Tupper as the horndog Joseph Cotten, and Leo Bill as the wily Norman Lloyd (still with us at age 95). The remainder, while not bad, is coming-of-age filler, as Richard seesaws between Welles’ ambitious assistant (Claire Danes, trying to make sense of a somewhat confused role) and an aspiring writer (the appealing Zoe Kazan). Efron, the Robert Pattinson of 2006, is as wooden as a desk. If his leftover appeal got this film off the ground, though, so be it. (Another plus is its stylish period detail, achieved not on the island of Manhattan but on the Isle of Man.)

What drew director Richard Linklater to this film I don’t know; then again, there’s not much of a thread between his indie triumphs like A Scanner Darkly and more commercial work like School of Rock. He films what interests him, and the prospect of McKay bringing a conception of Orson Welles to life may have moved him. It did me. With the right actor for the job Linklater should ditch the ”me” next time and focus on the man, the myth, and the legend.

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About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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