The strangest discourse in social media about Todd Haynes’ May December came when the film was nominated for the Golden Globes in the category “best comedy”. Nothing in this film is blatantly funny, but the humour is so cerebral it’s not a wild claim to call it a comedy.
There’s no laugh riot here, but for example, there’s a scene from the start where Julianne Moore’s character is frantically discussing with a friend about the arrival of a famous Hollywood actress while preparing a big barbeque for friends and family. She opens the fridge and alarmingly comments they don’t have enough sausages. The camera dramatically rushes towards her while the music elevates, as if it’s a soap opera and she just revealed a deep, shocking secret. Then, the film cuts to a ridiculous amount of sausages on the grill.
If you don’t think this is hilarious, I don’t know what to tell you, but if this was a sitcom that reveal would be paired with a stock laugh track.
May December is Hollywood’s most sarcastic film in a long time. An over-the-top satire of Hollywood exceptionalism that plays it so straight you’ll miss the wink if you blink.
The story is tangentially based on the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, the American teacher who had a physical relationship with one of her students, served time in jail, and married the student when she returned to civilian life. Haynes takes a lot of dramatic liberties to justify changing names and places but also heightens the point he is trying to make. This story is not about a teacher and her student. It is about a Hollywood actress spending time with her family because she’s playing the mother in the movie adaptation.
The actress is Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who invades the family to observe them. But no observation can be pure when there’s a famous superstar on the side. Gracie (Moore) is concerned about the outcome, but the promise of some measure of limelight is too good to pass. Her young husband, Joe (Charles Melton), keeps it to himself, playing along to whatever his wife wants, which makes it easy for Elizabeth to approach him and pick his brains – and explore the reasons Gracie was attracted to him.
It’s Gracie and Joe’s children who can see through the charade. It could be the acuteness of a generation who grew up with social media, or maybe the fact they lived with the spectre of their parents’ affair hanging over them. They refuse to play whatever game Gracie and Elizabeth do. There’s a great scene when the eldest daughter, Honor (Piper Curda), openly jokes with the mother about the cruel ways she used to fat shame her growing up, aware this is a detail Gracie would have omitted from showing when Elizabeth was around.
As good as the script by Samy Burch (and it is a great script), Hayne’s direction elevates the film. He purposely shows how important the sense of image is for every character, often putting the camera in the POV of a mirror so there are these uncanny shots where the actresses look directly at the audience but only see themselves.
On the other hand, he indulges in these over-the-top melodramatic movements, complete with soft lighting. It’s understandable why the Academy only nominated the screenplay, leaving out Haynes and the three main actors. On the page, this is a solid well, well-constructed drama, while the image and the performances are less sympathetic to the role of Hollywood in exploiting, misunderstanding, and misappropriating the pain and grief of others.
Haynes understands this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Elizabeth is keen to suck the life out of the family if it gives her the recognition she desires, but she cannot do it without the help and complicity of both Elizabeth and Joe. But the truth is unfortunately not as well complex – in the end, that desire for recognition by the establishment comes precisely because such establishment exists. In other words, without Hollywood, there would be no need to destroy the family.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Even if you don’t see it as a comedy, May December is delightful and has three of the most exciting performances that year. If you connect with the soap opera schtick, there’s so much more to get from it.