Deep Throat, Shallow Movie

11/06/2009 4:00 AM |

That Evening Sun
Directed by Scott Teems

Like the recent Is Anybody There?, also built around a grizzled geezer who resents his placement in a care facility, That Evening Sun, a cheapjack Deep South allegory in which a clash between archetypes escalates to a fiery face-off, boasts a single virtue: the centerpiecing of a withered and weathered performer at the top of his golden-age game. While that otherwise unremarkable film gave Michael Caine a role fine enough to go out on, should he have died after the shoot, here the same is done for Hal Holbrook. Hitherto, the aged actor has had a lengthy, respectable career: he’s best known for his portrayals of Mark Twain on the stage and small screen, his television turn as Lincoln, his recurring roles on Designing Women and Evening Shade, his defining Deep Throat. But it wasn’t until a heartbreaking performance in the otherwise abysmal Into the Wild in 2007 that he catapulted to the top of the list of the finest working actors of his generation. He even snagged an Oscar nomination.

Here, he plays Abner Meecham, an octogenarian widower—Holbrook’s real-life wife, Dixie Carter, plays his diegetic wife in flashbacks—who flees a seniors home and returns to his old farm, where he finds a relatively young family of white trash renting the land, with plans to buy, from his son (Walton Goggins), some kind of fancy city lawyer. Meecham temporarily moves into the sharecropper cabin—the old “slave house”—as a de facto squatter, and thus begins a generational showdown: between Jimmie Rodgers 33-1/3s and Toby Keith mp3s, between the gumption of the Greatest Generation and the idleness of today’s welfare-fed young, who are good for nothing but swillin’ tall-boys and beatin’ womenfolk. (“Old people don’t know when the fucking clock’s run out,” Meecham’s antagonist, Lonzo Choat, shouts one night. Boo!) For That Evening Sun to work, the audience’s sympathy needs to be torn between the two sides. And, on the page, writer-director Teems does an almost passable job of making it so—at least until the garden hose whippings start. In practice, however, it ain’t a fair fight from the first frame.

Ray McKinnon, who plays Choat, delivers a performance so self-serious it dips into ham, so one-note that all he can do is brood, get angry, and let loose that fury. (Think Rufus Sewell in The Illusionist, but with a Will Oldham beard, a wife-beater, and a drawl.) The problem with another recent Dixieland feud of Biblical proportions, Shotgun Stories, was that its characters needed to have fewer ostensibly humanizing back stories and more of the animalistic force that would befit characters with parabolic names like “Boy” and “Son”. (That film also had an evocative sense of the rural backwaters that this movie sorely lacks, despite the occasional halcyon, widescreen pastoral shots of Meecham’s Brigadoon.) But the problem here is the opposite: men that need to be fully conceived are instead lightly or tritely sketched, especially Choat; if it weren’t for the strong, complicated women that surround him, the facileness would be insufferable. What should be a complex struggle is rendered lopsided: In contrast to McKinnon, Holbrook—crusty and sardonic, yet defying the pigeonholing stereotype of the grumpy old man—lends much-needed levity to most of his dialogue, which ultimately amounts to a long strain of applause lines.

Teems loads the script with clear thematic pronouncements, a style better suited to the theater, if anywhere. But he’s not without his merits, too: a comic twist on an old manipulative favorite—canicide—proves he can think beyond clich√©s. Yet for every clever subversion there’s a matching adherence to formula, such as the unearned optimism on which the film ends. Late film revelations that Meecham was a mean pa, that the dysfunctional family on his land is a mirror image of his own past, are unconvincing, too. Surely you don’t mean that funny, loveable grampa? When the rest of the cast and crew can’t keep up, being such a talented performer becomes a fault. Holbrook doesn’t just deserve better material; he needs equitalented colleagues.

Opens November 6