Netflix Nourishment: 72nd Edition

Brandon Vick reviews May December, Leo, and Rustin on the latest installment of Netflix Nourishment.

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May December

Campy and discomfited but hardly ever compelling, director Todd Hayne’s (Carol) psychological melodrama struggles with its storytelling approach and the altering tones that it carries. Loosely based on the real-life scandal of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who got involved with a sixth grader she went on to marry and have children with, Haynes and writer Samy Burch do provide a little bit of suspense and intrigue when dealing with Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Elizabeth’s (Natalie Portman) friendly yet passively-aggressive, tense relationship. There’s a great sense of disingenuous as Elizabeth starts shadowing Gracie for a role in a film she’s doing about the tabloid romance that fascinated the country two decades ago. Howbeit, the longer Elizabeth is there, the more Gracie and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), have to confront the memories that have been suppressed for far too long. As much as Gracie wants everyone to think her stepford wife life is perfect, Elizabeth knows better and wants to see what’s hiding behind the facade.

In a film like this, it lives or dies by the performances, and May December is still breathing as the credits roll. Moore and Portman are each seductive in their respective role, the way they maneuver within their conversations with each other feels simultaneously intimate and fabricated. Portman is brilliant, playing Elizabeth devilishly cryptic. She leaves us viewers scratching our heads wondering what’s her true intentions with Gracie. There’s a fascinating, layered portrayal from Moore with a nice heft of camp on the side. Gracie appears to have it all, but there’s absolute derangement going on and she seems strangely aware of it. However, what she’s not aware of is the damage she’s caused to Joe’s life, stealing his childhood from him. Gracie is scarily sociopathic.

Through the almost two hours, it’s Melton’s affecting, grounding performance that packs the biggest emotional punch. It’s with Joe where the real tragedy of the film lies. With his youth taken away, he continuously shows his immaturity with a craving to be like his kids because he never got to be one. Elizabeth’s presence only furthers his torment when self-reflecting on being stunted and somehow coming to terms with it. Joe’s journey is the one that surpasses everything else in the story.

There’s a lot to unpack, though Hayneschoice to present this in a Lifetime movie/soap opera mashup just doesn’t work that well. It’s eccentric, a little ridiculous, and the humor doesn’t ever really come across. But luckily Portman, Moore, and Melton totally get it, transforming the material into something worth the effort.

Leo

In this cute though average animated musical, Adam Sandler voices the titled character – a 74 year-old lizard who’s ready to live his final year of life out in the real world and away from the school classroom he’s been in for decades. He gets the chance as the new substitute teacher forces the kids in the class to take him home for the weekend, which most of them see as a punishment. At least at first. Leo is ready for some new scenery, yet as soon as he opens his mouth and starts talking to them, he can’t help but teach them some valuable lessons in life. Before long, it’s not about escaping, it’s about giving.

Directed by Robert Smigel, Robert Marianetti, and David Wachtenheim and co-starring Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, and Stephanie Hsu – Leo is innocent family fun with the Sandler humor that we know we’re going to get. The difference is there’s quite a bit of sincerity involved with its overall meaning that’s relevant for all ages. And while that’s certainly wonderful to see, the story is still rather forgettable and the animation itself doesn’t even come close to the work of DreamWorks or Pixar. There’s enough here to keep the kids happy, but they (and us grownups) have seen better.

Rustin

Colman Domingo gives one of the best performances of the year portraying Bayard Rustin, an eminent organizer/activist who constructed the historic 1963’s March on Washington. Black and gay, he had to be a fighter in a world that didn’t accept any part of him, thus leaving him no choice but to go out and change it. Rustin is an unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement who takes his rightful place in American history, brought to life with such complexity, empathy, vulnerability, and integrity by a dynamic Domingo. The inspiration mainly comes from him and less so from the film itself.

Written by Dustin Lance Black and Julian Breece, this conventional, and at times superficial, biopic could afford to be more emotionally rousing. In all honesty, given the subject matter, that shouldn’t be very difficult to do. Rustin didn’t play it safe so why does the film about him have to? Director George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) does enough to bring awareness to who Rustin was as a man and as an advocate, but more could have been given to his story. But one thing is for certain: Domingo gives us everything he’s got.

Brandon Vick is a member of The Music City Film Critics’ Association and the Southeastern Film Critics Association, the resident film critic of the SoBros Network, and the star of The Vick’s Flicks Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SirBrandonV and be sure to search #VicksFlicks for all of his latest movie reviews.

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