This movie’s message is a good one; its execution leaves something to be desired.
The story takes place in 1950s suburbia. A painfully conventional family is broken apart when the husband’s (Dennis Quaid) homosexual dalliances come to light, and the wife (Julianne Moore) develops an interest in the African American gardener (Dennis Haysbert).
My main complaint about the movie is how many of the characters are caricatures. It’s as if the wife and children are portraying not people from the 1950s, but fictional characters from the most unrealistic pop culture of the 1950s. That is, one gets the impression they researched their roles by watching numerous episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and similar shows.
If anything I think those old TV shows were more realistic than the family in this movie. The wife is a Stepford Wife, and the kids are even more caricatured. Plus the son utters his lines like the cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway? improvising an amateur theater production, putting the emphasis on the wrong words and such.
The African American gardener and his daughter are depicted as perfect in every way. The morality play style of the film dictates that as victims they must be noble and pure as the driven snow–no subtlety or complexity allowed.
The husband is closer to being a real person. At least he drinks and has a temper. And of the two parallel stories–society punishing him for homosexuality, and society punishing the wife and gardener for an interracial attraction–I was more drawn in by his. Unfortunately the film devotes more time to the other story, by a ratio of maybe two to one, at least once the gardener character is introduced.
I wanted to see more of psychiatry’s efforts to “cure” the husband; what exists now as a laughable fringe movement of the Religious Right was pretty much mainstream then, and it would have been interesting to learn more about the therapies and methods used to combat the “mental illness” and/or “crime” of homosexuality.
Whatever my quibbles with how it does so, the movie makes solid points about how ridiculous and inhumane were the conventional values of the day of homophobia and racism.
Specifically, what we have are parallel cases of people having someone they could potentially have a positive relationship with–whether it be sexual, romantic, platonic, or what have you–and masses of other people making it their business to prevent that from happening or at least to make the cost as prohibitive as possible. And for absolutely no even minimally defensible reason, but instead just out of the most despicable hatred and prejudice (i.e., “family values”).
The evil attitudes portrayed in the film have lessened in certain respects in the last fifty years, but it’s not as if conservatives have given up the fight. The battle continues, and no doubt will into the indefinite future.
One interesting aspect of the movie is the way the wife is portrayed as blind to certain things rather than malicious, the idea being that besides the unambiguously evil conservatives of the era, well-meaning liberals were far from free of all prejudices.
The wife gives to charity, she offers to volunteer for the NAACP, after a bit of initial awkwardness she’s able to see the African American gardener as a worthwhile human being and connect with him (as well or better than anyone else in her life), she’s certainly loving and nurturing toward her family–all-in-all she’s clearly a decent human being with a good heart.
Yet when she encounters the gardener at a social event, she innocently asks him what it’s like to be the only colored person in the room, as we see the African American wait staff moving briskly through the crowd. For in her eyes they haven’t yet made that transition he has from invisible servants who do the dirty work and keep everything running smoothly, to actual human beings you can think of as “one of us.”
She’s supportive of her husband’s struggles, but only in the generic sense that it’s a wife’s duty to be supportive, just like if he’d turned out to be a kleptomaniac (or a drunk, which he pretty much is). The notion that homosexuality itself isn’t a bad thing doesn’t enter her head, except at most fleetingly when feeling out a friend about why she spoke of a homosexual disparagingly. And when outside forces come down hard on her budding relationship with the gardener, she’s very concerned with how it impacts her, the gardener, and the gardener’s daughter, but she never makes the connection that there’s an analogy with how her husband is being unjustly made to suffer for being gay.
In summary I’d say the movie has its heart in the right place and says some things that people still very much need to hear. It would be nice if it were less of a cartoon, but it’s still worthwhile.