Beginning promisingly enough, "Handsome" soon turns monotonously angst-ridden, with all humor and personality falling by the wayside.

“Handsome Harry,” the second of only two features Bette Gordon directed in the 26 years since “Variety,” finds the groundbreaking indie helmer recasting her feminism into an all-male study in gay denial. Scripted by ’70s counterculture lenser Nicolas Proferes and thesped by a veritable who’s-who of gifted character actors, the pic (like Gordon’s 1998 “Luminous Motion”) loosely resembles a road movie: A man, dragging along a secret, revisits co-participants in a traumatic event that transpired decades earlier. Beginning promisingly enough, “Handsome” soon turns monotonously angst-ridden, with all humor and personality falling by the wayside. Theatrical chances look iffy.

At the deathbed behest of Tom (Steve Buscemi), a buddy from his long-ago Navy days, Harry (Jamey Sheridan) sets off to convey Tom’s profound apologies to a third ex-sailor, Kagan (Campbell Scott, as it turns out), whom they both have wronged. Since Harry himself is haunted by half-remembered snatches of a night only hazily glimpsed in flashback, he decides to call on his other guilty comrades to determine exactly what happened on that fateful evening.

A dying Tom, fearful of going to hell, is a trip in itself, and launches Harry’s quest in high style. The next stop on his personal stations of the cross maintains this promising flamboyance: Dropping in on boozing real-estate tycoon Peter (John Savage) during an ugly marital dustup, Harry soon finds himself kicked out, sharing a bed and a curiously tender night with Pete’s wife, Judy (Mariann Mayberry).

Unfortunately, subsequent meetings — featuring Aidan Quinn in muddled antimilitaristic mode and Titus Welliver as the born-again husband of a paraplegic — play more like baldly outlined sketches than fully fleshed-out scenes. Treating supplemental characters more as stepping stones on Harry’s journey than as alternative answers to questions of what defines masculinity, Gordon puts all her emotional eggs in one basket — the disclosure of Harry’s terrible secret, which has become screamingly self-evident long before the dramatic denouement.

Yet even that might not have mattered had Gordon exploited the road movie’s promise of surprising encounters and quirky revelations. Instead, as in “Variety,” the notion of all-consuming obsession takes over after a certain point, anticlimactically winding down by feeding exclusively on itself.

In “Variety,” Gordon’s exploration of pornography and feminine voyeurism daringly implicated the very act of filmmaking, while bravely calling into question key feminist tropes. Here, however, her examination of male sexual identity, while benefiting greatly from astounding HD clarity and brilliantly sampled jazz, seems limited in terms of both narrative and mise-en-scene.

A gaunt Scott, struggling to infuse his final showdown with Sheridan with enough unfulfilled promise to constitute tragedy, is constantly upstaged by compositions that trumpet their meaning so loudly, even Scott’s silence seems redundant.

Handsome Harry

Production

A Worldview Entertainment production. Produced by Jamin O'Brien, Marilyn Haft. Executive producer, Fred Berner, Elizabeth Kling. Directed by Bette Gordon. Screenplay, Nicholas T. Proferes.

Crew

Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Nigel Bluck; editor, Keiko Deguchi; music, Anton Sanko; jazz cues, Jumaane Smith; music supervisor, Lynn Geller; production designer, Rene Sekula; costume designer, Michael Anzalone; sound, Skip Lievsay; sound designer, Eugene Gearty; casting, Todd M. Thaler. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Center, New York, April 19, 2009. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Mariann Mayberry, John Savage, Aidan Quinn, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young.
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