THE PARENT TRIPE

Those who squawked about Philadelphia's depiction of the unwavering support shown to a gay man by his affluent family really will be put out by The Sum of Us. This little Australian film is about the unconditional love of a father for his gay son.

Harry (Jack Thompson) is a jovial, working-class widower who adores his gay--and somewhat morose--son, Jeff (Russell Crowe), a plumber. The two share a small but extremely pleasant house in suburban Sydney. Harry is so enthusiastic in his acceptance that he encourages his son to go out and find "Mr. Right."

Jeff brings home a young fellow he fancies (John Polson) who's so weirded out by Harry's and Jeff's openness with each other that he can't take it, and bolts. Later, the lonely Harry starts a romance with a nice, handsome older lady (Deborah Kennedy), but hesitates to tell her about his son, and when she finds out, she bolts, too. While the unified front of family support that Tom Hanks received in Philadelphia was an incidental point in that film, Harry's acceptance of Jeff is the dramatic engine that drives The Sum of Us. The family scenes in Philadelphia were clearly part of the film's design. The criticism of them as "false" is, to begin with, inaccurate--not every family starts punching the walls when it finds out a member is gay. And it would have been just as easy, and more superficially dramatic, to present Hanks' family as uptight or hostile. Surely, the point being made was that even if you are a rich, successful lawyer with a hunky Latin boyfriend and a supportive family, being gay is no picnic.

No such point is made by The Sum of Us. As written, it's simply about what a great dad Harry is. The screenwriter, David Stevens (adapting his own play), is no slouch. He co-wrote Breaker Morant and an excellent TV version of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice. Yet this script feels like the work of a dedicated, modestly talented amateur--it would receive an A-minus in a college playwriting class. The dialogue is speakable, although Stevens halts it every 20 or 30 lines to let the characters have a nice, warm hug. Less speakable are the asides played directly to the camera that could have been integrated into the conversations. To be honest, some of these monologues could have been taken in, or cut altogether, with no big threat to world culture. The structure is random, and a major turn of events near the end is a blatantly mechanical attempt to inject drama into a story without momentum.

All that really redeems The Sum of Us is the acting. Crowe, one of the skinheads in Romper Stomper, gives an effectively simple performance as Jeff, but Thompson finds a subtext with real juice in Harry's lines. He smiles a little too broadly at times, and he's a bit too eager to show his son and his son's friends how okay he is with the situation. His constant, bantering interruptions are what wreck Jeff's date with the new guy. If you believe the script, Harry's openhearted nature comes from the joy he saw his lesbian mum have with a lover of 40 years. But Thompson's intrusive affability hints, without calling into question his decency and love, that Harry's liberalism may also have a streak of subconscious aggression. The film was co-directed by Kevin Dowling, the American who staged the play on Broadway, and Geoff Burton, who was also the cinematographer. Between them, they did a respectable, fluid job, but they couldn't find a consistent shape for the material, a current for the action to follow. The sum of The Sum of Us is less than its best parts. Had it been up to the subtleties of Thompson's performance, it could have been a funny and deeply touching comedy of manners. Instead, it's some good acting and an interesting premise, left incomplete.-

 
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