That eternally fascinating duo Decadence and Dysfunction rear their pretty heads in “Savage Grace,” a crushingly unsuccessful glimpse into the lives of the rich, peripatetic heirs of the Bakelite plastics fortune. Scripter Howard A. Rodman’s treatment of an enthralling book is more a series of vignettes rather than a fully connected work, and helmer Tom Kalin seems unable to decide how much Sirkian melodrama to introduce into the heady mix. Gone are the reasons to be fascinated with these people, merely replaced with maddeningly over-arch dialogue and struggles with characterization. Biz may be modest but unsustainable.
“I was the steam when hot meets cold” comments narrator Antony (“Tony”) Baekeland (Eddie Redmayne), an especially apt metaphor considering how Tony’s personality dissolves like condensation before it has a chance to solidify. The only child of Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), himself the grandson of the inventor of plastic, Tony is saddled with parents whose insecurities stem from very different sources.
Mother Barbara (Julianne Moore) is the ultimate poseur, desperate to shake off the taint of her middle-class origins. Craving acceptance in society, she constantly overplays her hand, heightening husband Brooks’ sense of their difference and his own discomfort with an unfulfilling life of ease. Her crushing need for love results in a smotheringly close bond with Tony, who she shows off to prove that the fruit of her loins can result in the perfect scion of American aristocracy.
Even early on Barbara and Tony (played as an insufferably artificial child by Barney Clark) have an almost unnatural rapport, facilitated by their frequent moves around the chic European watering holes of the rich. Though obvious from early on that he’s gay, Tony has a brief dalliance in Spain with gold-digger Blanca (Elena Anaya), who’s soon in Brooks’ arms instead.
Separation between Brooks and Barbara is swift: Tony feels abandoned by his father as his mother continues to smother him with her neediness. When gay walker Simon (Hugh Dancy) comes to stay, mother, son and Simon all wind up in bed together, furthering the aberrant parental relationship as it continues to be taken down unnatural paths.
In the book “Savage Grace” (like its predecessor “Edie,” published three years earlier), the narrative wasn’t told so much as constructed, edited into being through first-person narratives that revealed the complexities of its characters. Kalin, so sure in “Swoon,” overreaches in trying to tell too much of the story, shuttling between New York, Paris, Spain and London, but in trying to build his characters he rarely gets beyond the superficial. Tony’s schizophrenia (a word never mentioned) is barely signaled, and throughout the pic it feels as if much more was shot and cut away, to deleterious effect.
Barbara is a poseur, certainly, but her lines are ridiculously convoluted in the first quarter. The peppering with French and Spanish is fine, but the sentences themselves are much too flowery, as if scripter Rodman confused written lines with spoken dialogue. Fortunately she does drop the plummy tones later on, but, as written, her attempts to be considered part of the inner circle come out as caricature.
Throughout the 26-year period covered Moore never ages. Is that because she never ages in Tony’s eyes? She’s undeniably a superb actress but hampered by pic’s piecemeal nature. The most difficult scene, when Barbara places her hand on Tony’s crotch and starts feeling him, is also her best, approached with a disturbing hardness coupled with need.
Stephen Dillane comes off well, perhaps because he’s allowed to be more true to one character. It’s not that Brooks comes completely alive here, but Dillane captures his insecurities (why is anal intercourse so often used as a shorthand for insecurities?), and is able to naturally deliver lines peculiar to Brooks’ American upper crust milieu.
Redmayne has proven before that he’s a fine actor, but here he’s overcultivated the deadening tones of the American upper crust. He starts off like a Warhol denizen — thin, blank and diffident — then turns into an Abercrombie & Fitch model before settling into a Ralph Lauren look. Meanwhile Dancy tries to beat Moore at the archness stakes — he’s posing, not acting.
The range of European locales are attractively shot without making much of an impression. Period is well handled without being obsessively detailed. Music, like the intro to a jazz lite radio station, is a major problem, constantly distracting and false.