|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
“Unconditional Love” is a very unconventional comedy. The tone set by director P.J. Hogan and his co-writer Jocelyn Moorhouse goes everywhere. One moment we’re in an affectionate, knowing tweaking of fandom – think “Galaxy Quest,” with a Tom Jones-esque entertainer rather than a ‘60s cult TV show as the object of adoration – the next, we’re in the stark drama of deep loss, and then we’ve got surrealism, with Julie Andrews as herself calming the passengers on a storm-tossed airplane by leading a singalong. In a word, it’s odd.
Kathy Bates plays Grace Beasley, a well-to-do Chicago matron with a vaguely unsatisfying marriage, whose principal joy in life comes from listening to the song stylings of crooner Victor Fox (Jonathan Pryce), a Vegas-style showman who is unfailingly chivalrous (if a bit smarmy) to his legion of largely middle-aged female fans. Grace’s life is rattled by a series of crises. First, her husband Max (Dan Aykroyd) announces he’s leaving her. Grace’s son (Jack Noseworthy) and outspoken, little-person daughter-in-law Maudie (Meredith Eaton) are having marital problems. Then Grace seems to catch a break – she gets a front-row ticket to see her beloved Victor perform on a local TV show. However, Victor never makes it to the taping – he is the latest victim of a serial killer. Grace, reeling, decides she is going to go to Victor’s tiny hometown in Wales for the funeral, even though she never met the man in life.
Once Grace arrives at her destination (over the appalled objections of her family, who all think she’s losing her mind), she encounters Dirk Simpson (Rupert Everett), who is holed up in Victor’s cottage for the good reason that he was Victor’s longtime lover. Grace and Dirk, after a prickly getting-to-know-you period (prickly on his part, anyway – Grace is determined to look after this other person who loved Victor, too), decide to return to Chicago and track down Victor’s killer.
Picture and sound quality are decent, although Victor’s glittery apparel presents some digital challenges – a silver suit he wears in Chapter 1’s opening musical segment tends to bleed. Chapter 5 has good, impactful fireworks. Chapter 9 gets excellent colors from a variety of flowers, though it’s hard to hear parts of a key cell phone conversation without raising the volume. Chapter 14 provides Pryce’s mellow, pleasing rendition of the Elvis Presley standard “You Were Always on My Mind” and Chapter 16 has a good, loud vehicular crash that shakes out discretely through the speaker system. Chapter 22 creates a good surround effect with more fireworks, some of which detonate in the rears, and there’s a nice, atmospheric echo effect in Chapter 24.
“Unconditional Love” therefore breaks into three unusually distinct acts: the unraveling of Grace’s life in Chicago, the forming of her friendship with Dirk in Wales, and their peculiar manhunt. While the whole idea of dire physical jeopardy seems at odds with the tone of everything around it, the most peculiar aspect of “Unconditional Love” probably comes in the second act. While it’s plausible that Grace, who hasn’t gotten out much until now, might be startled by the revelation that her idol was gay, the movie seems to expect to get some sort of rise out of its audience with this news. “Unconditional Love” isn’t exactly “Austin Powers” – it’s a safe bet that almost anybody who decides to sit down with the film has an inkling that gay men don’t necessarily conform to stereotypes and may even become heartthrobs for members of the opposite sex. “Unconditional Love” does thereafter spend a fair amount of time dithering over issues of homophobia and coming-out that would probably have been insightful about 20 years ago but now simply seem dated – the small-town aspect of the story might give this a little more validity if Everett’s persona were not so resolutely hip.
Then again, it may be the intention of Hogan and Moorhouse to emulate the tone of some of the eccentric English comedies of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s – movies that didn’t entirely add up but had memorable sequences and fiercely idiosyncratic styles. Certainly no one in his or her right mind could accuse “Unconditional Love” of being cookie-cutter studio fare and it does have some incredibly funny things in it, starting with Pryce’s sly, knowing turn as Victor in music video and fantasy sequences – a stage song-and-dance man from way back, he’s got the pipes and the moves to make it work, and the attitude to make it hilarious. Bates is terrific, bringing maximum sympathetic vulnerability to Grace so that we root for her rather than laugh at her, and Everett is appropriately arch and droll. Sometimes the humor is marvelously specific – anybody who’s seen “Don’t Look Now” will be vastly amused by an observation rising from that film – and there’s a lot of heart here. “Unconditional Love” may be too retro for some, and even those who like it may find it a bit uneven, but at its best, it’s bright and affectionate, and it’s certainly original.