Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Movie Review: “The Son” a Leaden, Inauthentic Melodrama

Falls from cinematic grace are seldom this precipitous. In 2020, writer-director Florian Zeller, working with British playwright Christopher Hampton, released his first film, one of the year’s masterpieces. “The Father” earned Anthony Hopkins his second Best Actor Academy Award for his devastating and accurate portrayal of late-stage dementia. A little over two years later, the same creative team has released a prequel of sorts, “The Son” (opening in theaters today), a staggeringly risible adaptation of Zeller’s French-language play of the same name.

“The Father” placed us inside the fractured consciousness of its perpetually disoriented protagonist, making us feel like we, too, were losing our bearings and our minds. “The Son” exists in no recognizable reality, propelled by ham-fisted dialogue no one would actually utter, and leaving its A-list cast to flounder through it, oarless in an ocean of clichés.

The protagonist of Zeller’s road-to-Damascus narrative is Hugh Jackman’s Peter Miller, a lawyer enjoying the self-centered and charmed life of a high-powered executive: penthouse apartment in New York, glass-enclosed office at a prestigious law firm overlooking the Chrysler Building. He raised a child, once, with his first wife, Kate (Laura Dern), for whom he traded in years ago for a younger model, Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Currently living with his mother, his eldest child Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has been, for the unbothered Peter, largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind—until Kate shows up at his door with news that Nicholas, now 17, hasn’t been attending school for three months.

Clearly unhappy at home, Nicholas comes to live with Peter, Beth and their newborn child, but he soon reverts to his familiar patterns. Zeller’s film isn’t so much a story about father-son reconciliation as it is about chronic teenage depression and the failure of parents like Peter (and Kate) to comprehend the warning signs, not to mention their complicity in the development of his disease.

There are two ways to confront such sensitive material: with naked, messy authenticity, or with the maudlin shorthand of a mothballed after-school special. Zeller leans in to the latter approach, crafting scenes that are phony in their (mis)understanding of modern teenagers and fusty in their details.

Hugh Jackman and Zen McGrath in “The Son”

“The Son” often feels like a 1950s script updated with cellphones. Nicholas, whose condition McGrath never renders believable, is, we are told, 17 years old, but spends one of his better hours by enjoying vintage cartoons on TV; when he visits his mother, she sits him down with a tall glass of milk. Allegedly invited to a party by a fellow-student, he balks because he “doesn’t know how to dance,” as if he’s headed to a sock hop; this leads to the film’s most excruciating scene of intra-family bonding that I won’t be so sadistic as to spoil. The movie’s outmoded mentality extends to its female characters as well: Neither Beth nor Kate, the latter still very much in throng to the man who dumped her, seem to have much identity or agency.

“The Son” is a film bereft of nuance, that leaves nothing to subtext and nothing to our imagination—the opposite of “The Father.” Characters vocalize everything they are thinking, no matter how ham-fisted and overwrought, like these hum-dingers from Nicholas: “Life is weighing me down. … “I don’t think I’m ever going to measure up. … “I’m not made like other people. Some days I feel like I’m not made for this life.” This dialogue is so arch and bloodless that if I didn’t know any better, I would think this movie was written by an A.I.

And yet, there’s Anthony Hopkins again, swooping in to briefly raise the pulse rate of this leaden drama. He cameos as Anthony, his character from “The Father,” pre-demented and chillingly lucid. He plays father to Peter, who visits his old man in part to rehash the schisms still dividing them, and presumably for Zeller to make some grand statement of how the sins of the father are passed down to the son, and yada yada psychobabble yada yada.

Put all that aside and just relish in Hopkins’ acting as a cleaned-up, C-suite Hannibal Lecter—cold-blooded, sociopathic, devilishly performed. Hopkins is the only actor in “The Son” who makes the dialogue sing. They call him sir for a reason.

“The Son” is playing now at Cinemark Palace 20, Living Room Theaters at FAU, Regal Shadowood 16, Movies of Delray and other area theaters.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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