Scaring Writer's Block Away
On January 6, 2009
Suffering Man's Charity
Nobody does creepy quite like Alan Cumming. Whether he's trying to force himself on Minnie Driver in Circle of Friends or stalking Lisa Kudrow with his "huge notebook" in Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, the actor has certainly cornered the market on playing smiling eccentrics with a dangerous twinkle in their eye.
After landing a Tony Award for his performance in Cabaret and co-directing the critically acclaimed and award-winning domestic dramedy The Anniversary Party with his Cabaret's Sally Bowles (Ms. Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cumming makes his solo directorial debut with Ghost Writer, which playwright Thomas Gallagher adapted into screenplay form from his original work, Suffering Man's Charity.
Essentially a one-man show giving Cumming free range to out-ham Jack Nicholson in The Shining with a campier What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? meets Mommie Dearest aura-- the actor, director and executive producer trades Faye Dunaway's wire hangers for Christmas lights, lingerie, and a violin bow in one of Ghost Writer's most vicious scenes.
Playing a wicked intellectual snob and music teacher who takes it upon himself to become the benefactor and Oscar Wilde inspired Greek tradition tutor of handsome young aspiring artists whom he takes under his wing, Cumming's John Vandermark finds himself growing increasingly obsessed by his latest lodger, Sebastian (Angel's David Boreanaz).
Having developed a hopeless crush on the handsome young womanizing gigolo who fancies himself a writer (yet cannot quote Shakespeare or Beckett-- to John's annoyance), when John realizes that his tenant has reneged on the unspoken deal to offer him bodily comfort for his generosity in favor of bringing home drunken floozies (including a hilarious, bawdy Karen Black), he snaps like a violin string.
Using the bow sadistically to lash Sebastian when he answers scholarly questions incorrectly-- having first tied him up with Christmas lights, gagged him with duct tape and dressed him in women's lingerie-- the film quickly crosses from twisted Tennessee Williams territory into the Hard Candy and Funny Games styled torture genre. Yet it's precisely this indecision and fast misstep in tone from odd comedy to downright shocking confrontation that makes us extremely uneasy and keeps us at arm's length from Cumming's work. Mainly, we're never sure if it wants to go for high camp and "midnight cult" movie status (as Salon.com and Parade Magazine noted in the press release) or venture directly into "torture porn."
Additionally, the director seems as easily confused as the rest of us, putting his heart and soul into an effective scenery chewing "one for the books" performance of hammy excess that feels like it was derived directly from the school of Norma Desmond (as Parade Magazine also noted, comparing it to Sunset Boulevard), while the film struggles at the same time.
And sure enough, the first act predictably ends in bloodshed as John's plan goes awry and he finds himself haunted by his tenant, leading us into two dubious final acts that tries to keep us invested with stunt casting (featuring a range of talents including Anne Heche, Henry Thomas, Jane Lynch, and Carrie Fisher) before it ends with John's final comeuppance-- a cross between O. Henry and Edgar Allen Poe.
Seemingly far more successful as a literary premise, short film, or perhaps as a Sweeney Todd like opera that Cumming's John always longed to write and kept trying to force into the hands of his musician friend (Henry Thomas)-- despite the film's strong start and a fascination with the undeniably gifted Scottish born actor, unfortunately it's a misfire as we realize we don't like or care enough about any of the characters onscreen to suffer through John's twisted form of charity (as the original title referenced).