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'Uncle Frank' hits bittersweet notes in a time gone by that feels closer than it should
by Jeremy Fogelman
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, Stephen Root, Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Lois Smith
Director: Alan Ball
There’s nothing wrong with “writing what you know” -- it tends to make things more honest and sincere after all. There’s also nothing wrong with writing about something that’s clearly referencing yourself, although it’s something that can tip into self-indulgence if you’re not careful. The good thing about the approach is that you potentially give me a bit of an insight into the artist or a world you may know little about. But it can also feel like more of the same.
Uncle Frank comes from writer/director and Oscar winner Alan Ball in his first film since 2007’s Towelhead. The movie stars Paul Bettany as the titular character of Uncle Frank Bledsoe, but at first the movie isn’t clearly about him. At a family gathering in the early 70s, young Beth (Sophia Lillis, who played the young Amy Adams in Sharp Objects) feels out of place with her rough and tumble, borderline crude Southern family.
Although her grandmother (a barely used Margo Martindale) is gruff, she’s loving, and her parents (Steve Zahn and Judy Greer) don’t really understand her. Worst of all is the patriarch of the family (Stephen Root, delving into some real vitriol here) who acts calm but is on a hair-trigger fury. But there is one family member that Beth really likes, her Uncle Frank, a professor from all the way in New York City.
The two bond and Uncle Frank offers to help her out if she ever moves out to where he lives. A bit of a time jump later, and we meet up with them again, including Frank (who is very much in the closet) showing off an obviously fake girlfriend to Beth and her parents. Now, I say obvious because the movie makes it obvious to the audience, even if it’s not obvious to the characters. It’s one of the odd writing choices, flattening things out and resorting to clichés and misunderstandings.
When news comes of the grandfather’s passing, Frank offers to drive Beth back to their home town of Creekville. But things are complicated by the presence of Frank’s secret boyfriend from Saudi Arabia Walid “Wally “ Nadeem (Peter Macdissi). Their journey back is mostly uneventful, as it begins to set up Frank’s tragic backstory, while also trying to maintain some sort of romantic arc with Wally.
Not as well served is niece Beth, who tends to have only little bits of commentary, and overall the movie lacks a balance about these characters. We do have moments of difficulty, sadness, and catharsis as to be expected in such a movie, but the characters have a flatness to them that the actors seem to be struggling to get past. It’s a lot of great acting here, but the writing doesn’t serve their capability.
Stephen Root really gets to dip into a more hateful character, and all of the character actors like Judy Greer and Margo Martindale are as good as they always are -- if underutilized. The movie has a few too many flashbacks, or perhaps they are mostly not artfully done, because they feel more like “we needed to set up this backstory” than really rounding out the character of Frank in a more deep way.
I did like the ultimate way it went, even if much of it felt a bit pat and easy as a conclusion -- a bit too easy on those that had wronged Frank and not necessarily realistic for the era (pre-Reagan after all). But there are a lot of good parts to the rapport between Frank and Wally, or Frank and Beth, when we get them -- so there are a lot things to like here too.