Beautiful Something **
Starring: Brian Sheppard, Zack Ryan, Colman Domingo, John Lescault
Director: Joseph Graham
The problem with an ensemble drama is that it can only be as good as its ensemble. Whereas most films hinge on the talent of just one or two, an ensemble can be wholly undermined by having just one weak link in its chain of leads. For Beautiful Something, this is unfortunately the case. Depicting a series of encounters between strangers over the course of a single night, the film attempts to examine loneliness, anonymity and personal fulfilment… to varying degrees of success.
Brian (Sheppard) has writer’s block. In an attempt find inspiration, he takes the last of his money to a bar, intent on encountering new people. One of those he meets is Jim (Ryan), a young trophy-boyfriend of the renowned artist Drew (Domingo). Living in Drew’s shadow, he is desperate to feel like a person in his own right. Elsewhere, rich businessman Bob (Lescault) is cruising the streets of the city in his limousine, looking for a boy, meeting but turning down rentboys until he finds the perfect one.
Though its lack of any real plot isn’t a problem in itself, the characters are not quite strong enough to carry the film. Brian is the tortured writer, Drew the passionate artist and Bob the businessman with a heart – stereotypes that have been played a hundred times before, all populating the night-time with their personal searches for meaning. On paper however, it should be Jim who is the most interesting character. Jim is the “beautiful something”; the centre of all their affections, who has been objectified his whole life but has tired of being just a face and a body. But for a film that clearly wants to delve beneath this surface, it succeeds only in propagating the façade even further. Utilising every opportunity to take his shirt off, the camera lingers far too long on Jim, almost obsessively, and unfortunately Zack Ryan simply isn’t a strong enough actor to justify this attention.
We are clearly supposed to feel empathy for Jim, but Ryan’s performance mistakes complexity for being perplexing. He swings between vulnerability and arrogance, friendliness and being unapproachable. He has ended up impenetrable, but as he is the character with whom the audience would naturally identify with the least, this makes Beautiful Something at times painfully dense. The film is trying to make us look below the surface, but then falls foul of only depicting this character at surface value, which undermines everything else in the film.
This is not to say the film is without successes, however. Sheppard’s Brian is compelling, even if he is cliché. And in a scene in which he confronts his first love Dan – his “straight” room-mate with whom he had a summer of passion – we are presented with the complexity of sexuality. Dan slept with Brian but does not (and could not) return his love. His filial love for Brian is real, but his line is drawn in the sand – something that Brian struggles to understand or accept. This insight into sexual experimentation is a refreshing take, that instead looks to examine its psychology, rather than pandering to what could have been cheap titillation.
This is just one of Brian’s multiple encounters over the course of the night, and it’s with his story that we identify the most, because his story is about more than just sex. Despite Bob’s eventual softness, it’s very difficult to move past his aloofness, with which he is judging the boys who he sees as objects. We are also clearly meant to see past Drew’s façade too, but it is difficult to find any empathy at all for a man who seems only to care about satisfying his lusts. And then there’s Jim. The object; the sexualised being; the embodiment of sexuality itself. The supposed Helen of Troy, but without any of the mystery. Whether or not a better actor would have improved Beautiful Something is another question, but the hurdle it falls at is what is intended to be its biggest draw. Without Jim, this would be just another film about the intransience of human relationships. With him, it is objectification for objectification’s sake, pretending not to take the moral high ground about an issue of which it is most at fault. Quite the misfire, really.