Former dancer Peter Reed’s debut feature is also, sadly, his last — helmer died of AIDS in April at age 40. Sadder still is the fact that this hackneyed, borderline-ludicrous family melodrama occupied his final months. Slick production values and telepic tenor suggest cable broadcast as likeliest outlet.
Based on a novel by Michael David Brown (who co-wrote screenplay with Reed), film mixes retro “Playhouse 90” feel with sub-Tennessee Williams verbosity that translates stiffly to celluloid form. While AIDS plot strand — among too many contrived crises — rates poignancy given its offscreen context, “Under Heat” embraces cliches at every juncture.
Dean (Eric Swanson), 36, has returned to visit his mom (Lee Grant) and older brother, Milo (Robert Knepper). We immediately deduce gay Dean is HIV-positive, though his plans to break that news to the family are interrupted repeatedly (with dim, heart-tugging obviousness). No wonder — this family seems to magnetize trauma. Mom’s hit the bottle ever since doctor Dad committed suicide (for no clear reason)20 years earlier, an act remembered by both sibs in gauzy flashbacks.
She’s also diagnosed with a tumor that could be malignant. Meanwhile, bad-boy Milo has an ex-wife and two kids waiting in the wings for reconciliation. His sometime lover and partner in heroin use and dealing, Velma, skulks around, meddling to eventual disastrous effect.
Shot in the countryside around Albany, N.Y., “Under Heat” posits these figures as Souls in Torment. But they’re artificial from the get-go, never as witty, wise or profoundly pained as the filmmakers seem to think. (Their posturing also seems laughably disembodied from the rural landscape.) As narrative winds toward its predictable funeral/stiff-upper-lip finale, howls gradually displace intended aud weepage.
Last half-hour, in particular, invites unkind laughter — especially when skimpily clad bad girl Velma chases the funeral procession sobbing, “I loved that son-of-a-bitch!”
Lead perfs are all grandstanding gesture, especially Swanson’s overtelegraphing of “gay” and “doomed” signals. Given her heftiest screen role in some time, the normally expert, eerily unaged Grant is miscast. Her smart, sophisticated tenor is all wrong given Mom’s history of emotional fragility.
Tech values are smooth. Reed demonstrates a pretty, albeit conventional, camera eye, and full-tilt empathy toward practiced thesps in stale circumstances. It’s anyone’s guess whether his directorial abilities would have seemed more promising granted less banal material.