Combustible Celluloid
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With: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Josh Charles, Luke Grimes, Skipp Sudduth, Steve Carell, Tom McGowan, Dennis Boutsikaris, Mary Birdsong, Gabriel Luna
Written by: Ron Nyswaner
Directed by: Peter Sollett
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality
Running Time: 103
Date: 10/09/2015

Freeheld (2015)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Pension Release

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Julianne Moore won her first Oscar for a not-very-good disease-of-the-week movie that everyone has surely forgotten about by now. It was a frustrating victory for an actress that has been great for decades and has given far greater performances in at least a dozen far greater movies. Now, as if encouraged by this dubious honor, she has done another disease-of-the-week movie, Freeheld, less than a year later. But this time it's coupled with a prestigious "based on a true story" issue.

Let's get this out of the way first. The real story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree is a great one. (The movie is, like The Sessions, based on an Oscar-winning Best Documentary Short film.) Laurel was a cop who came down with cancer and fought to leave her pension to her domestic partner Stacie (before a marriage between two women was legal). It was a human rights case that took a small step for equality. I've got nothing against that story or those folks. I'm talking about a fictional movie here.

Directed by Peter Sollett and written by Ron Nyswaner (who received an Oscar nomination for another disease-of-the-week movie), Freeheld looks exactly like you might imagine. It's all sort of evenly lit and evenly framed, never once trying to transcend the genre or trying to be a movie. It's one of those movies that tries hard to "stay true to the material," forsaking anything personal in the process, as if the filmmakers were simply empty vessels whose only job is to bring this important story to the masses.

Astoundingly, Moore is also a weak link. Even while we were suffering through Still Alice, it was still possible to look at her and say, "she's great even if the movie isn't." This time she's not great. She's just a little too much, perhaps trying a little too hard. She spends the first half of the movie trying to stay "in the closet," and her panic, while probably justified when the real-life story was happening, now seems hysterical. She runs into a fellow cop at a gay bar, and they silently agree to keep each other's secrets, but not without some cold sweat beading up on their brows.

The meet-cute between Laurel and Stacie is rather forced, plot-wise, but the good news is that Page really sells her performance. Her turn as Stacie is delightfully low-key and humble. She creates an entire character here, rather than just a symbol for justice. Stacie goes around seeming like she doesn't deserve the good fortune of knowing someone as great as Laurel, like she just can't believe she's this lucky. When something awful happens, she registers it with great hurt, as only someone with an open heart can be injured. She doesn't even want to talk about the pension issue; she only wants Laurel to get better.

The movie's other trump card is Michael Shannon, a great actor who is normally cast as a creep. Here he's Laurel's partner on the force, Dane Wells. When he finds out that Laurel is a lesbian, he's furious... not because of her sexual orientation, but because she lied to him. Once the secret is out, he fully supports her, and fights just as hard as anyone to go to the board meetings and try to get the pension to its rightful owner. But he doesn't bellow and make speeches; you can see him thinking, weighing options. He uses his fearsome looks to his advantage. Once we realize he's not dangerous, it's such a relief that we get totally on board with him.

Time goes on and Laurel comes down with lung cancer. We get the usual hospital-type scenes with the characters suffering and weeping and fighting for life, and Moore wearing horrific makeup, and eventually going bald (not sure if she shaved her head or wore a skin wig, but given her high level of skill, I'd guess the former).

Then the board of freeholders comes into the picture, with Josh Charles as Bryan Kelder, the one and only sympathetic member of a board of six. They have to make the decision that Stacie is an honest-to-goodness family member and can collect the pension when Laurel dies. They are against it. They walk around saying things like, "Marriage is between a man and a woman!" and "How am I supposed to look my family in the eye if I vote for this?" while the audience boos and hisses at the villains, feeling enlightened.

Perhaps the worst touch is Steve Carell, who gives a great big campy performance as Steven Goldstein, the gay head of Garden State Equality. Yes, he is funny, and he steals scenes, but he seems like a ham-fisted attempt to add lightness to a heavy story about bigotry and dying. He's also something of a stereotype in a movie that is otherwise a forward-thinking vehicle. (It could be that the real Goldstein is just like this, and that Carell is giving a dead-on impersonation, but there's no way to tell while watching the movie.)

In a way Carell is the key to the problem behind the movie. The filmmakers simply don't seem aware that a movie like Freeheld is part of a tired old genre of issue movies; at one time, they were sure-fire Oscar winners, but audiences have grown savvy about movies that are deliberately trying for awards. It would be one thing to tell this story in a way that acknowledged the genre and tried to work around it in some way. But our filmmakers have fully embraced all the old tropes, seemingly without realizing what they are.

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