A classic case of “Better if you didn’t read the book” cinema, “Loverboy” emerges an OK character study of an abnormally possessive mother. But Kevin Bacon’s second feature as director (1996’s “Losing Chase” also starred his wife Kyra Sedgwick) reps a considerable betrayal of the source material’s tone and impact. Too many visual gimmicks and a cast overburdened with big names in small roles soften Victoria Redel’s acclaimed debut novel. Where one might have imagined a film translation as stark and close to psychological horror as Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” “Loverboy” plays more like an offbeat Lifetime made-for. Prospects are modest.
At once striking a broadly comic tenor that couldn’t be further from Redel’s coiled, ambiguous narrative, pic introduces protag/narrator Emily Stoll (Sedgwick) as a 30-ish single woman of independent means, no profession, and no interest in establishing a conventional home or relationships. All she wants is a child. To that end, first reel has her roaming the nation shagging one anonymous (but genetically promising) dude after another. This results in a miscarriage, however, and she despairs until a one-night-stand with a conventioneer (Campbell Scott) has the desired effect.
“My equation was: Many men equals no father,” she informs us. Thus Emily, informing no one of her whereabouts (least of all the sperm donor), buys a house in Yonkers and settles down to being a determinedly single mother.
Hannah Shakespeare’s script then fast-forwards to 6-year-old Paul (Dominic Scott Kay) developing an independent streak — which mom views as a full-blown crisis. Home-schooled in bizarre, haphazard fashion by an overeducated mother with no grasp of age-appropriate teaching, tired of ma’s make-believe games and status as self-appointed sole playmate, the boy questions why he can’t mingle with other neighborhood kids. Or go to regular school.
Emily’s reaction is an abrupt “vacation” trip to a remote, off-season coastal cottage where their exclusive society-of-two can again be established. But even here there are nosy, overfriendly neighbors, with whom Paul gets along dismayingly well — especially geologist/fisherman Mark (Matt Dillon), who clearly wouldn’t mind completing the “family” as husband and father.
Feeling she’s losing control of Paul, Emily decides to take him home so he can attend first grade at a normal school. Despite prior social isolation, he does surprisingly well, which panics mom further, as she can’t bear her “genius” son to become “just” a normal kid.
Flash-forwards interspersed throughout find mother and child in a car in their closed garage — an apparent play activity that grows sinister as film progresses. Whatever cumulative punch this scene possesses, however, is smoothed over by a sentimental epilogue that’s 180 degrees from Redel’s chilling final notes.
Told exclusively in protag’s voice, the novel stayed just a few intriguing degrees short of psycho-mom-from-hell pulp territory, instead letting readers very gradually — and just partially — grasp the mental illness behind Emily’s obsessive guardianship. Film keeps that first-person tack in superficial terms, but renders the psychological landscape in blunt strokes that often turn traumatic incidents (e.g. little Emily’s talent-show mortification, or her freakout when another woman breast-feeds infant Paul) into broad, even slapstick comedy.
Flashbacks to her neglected childhood feature Marisa Tomei and Bacon himself as Emily’s parents — caricatured, self-involved ’70s swinger types. Sandra Bullock appears as a neighborhood lady Emily fantasizes as her ideal mom. Former bits are set to cheesy disco-era radio hits, while latter incongruously showcase Jimi Hendrix tracks. Indeed, soundtrack is intrusive throughout.
Likewise the visual aspects, which Bacon and lenser Nancy Schreiber needlessly clutter with interludes of soft-focus, slo-mo, skewed angles and distorted lenses. If all this means to illustrate that Emily lives in a dream world, it backfires — her hyper-controlling nature is at odds with a flashy presentation that’s all over the map.
Sedgwick is well cast, though in this watered-down interpretation, the character is not as challenging as she was in the book. Young Kay is adequate albeit close to conventional precocious-movie-kid cuteness. (Helmer and star’s own child Sosie Bacon plays the young Emily.)
Support cast is fine, although frankly it’s more distracting than helpful to have their ranks filled with familiar faces like Blair Brown, Oliver Platt and Melissa Errico, many only given a scene or two.
Tech aspects are smooth.