Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Film: Swan Song (2021) x 2

Swan Song (c) Apple TV+ // Swan Song (c) Magnolia Pictures

Film: Swan Song (2021) x 2 
Directed by Todd Stevens, starring Udo Keir (on demand) 
Directed by Benjamin Cleary, starring Mahershala Ali (on Apple TV+) 

Premise: By chance, two films in 2021 had the same title, and although they told similar tales of a dying man’s last quest, they took two different approaches in tone. The Todd Stevens directed one stars Udo Keir as Pat Pitsenbarger, the formerly famous Sandusky, Ohio hairdresser who is living as the sour queen of a retirement community when he finds out that a socialite he had a falling out has died and requested in her will that Mr. Pat does her hair for funeral. Mr. Pat marches to the beat of his own queer drummer, makes his way back to Sandusky revisiting important touchstones of his life, including a run-in with his former protégé, Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge). In Benjamin Cleary’s film, Mahershala Ali plays Cameron Turner, a man still madly in love with his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris). They are raising a young son and are looking forward to their next chapter, but Cameron hasn’t told his family that he has a terminal disease and has decided, with the help of Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), to clone himself and have the clone take over for him without his family knowing. But is Cameron having second thoughts? 

My Take: Both films are very good but in totally different ways. 

Swan Song (c) Apple TV+

Cleary’s film feels like a cross between “Marjorie Prime,” in which grieving survivors have robots stand in for the dead, and 2021’s “I am Your Man,” the German submission for the International Feature Oscar category in which Dan Stevens plays a robot who has been created to the preference of a woman who doesn’t think she needs a mate. This is a quiet, contemplative film that takes place in the near future, that gives the dying an option to those they leave behind. Ali is mostly in his noble mode that won him the Oscar for “Green Book,” and he and Harris have quite the chemistry together, including a flashback of how they met. Even with fine support by Close and Awkwafina (as another clone-e), the movie really doesn’t hold a lot of surprises but it’s the acting and the cool, gentle cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi that gives the movie its hook. 

Swan Song (c) Magnolia Pictures

Todd Stephens’ film, on the other hand, is deliriously campy in a heightened reality, most as seen through the eyes of Mr. Pat. Keir, one of our most original character actors (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Shadow of the Vampire”), is having the time of his life with outrageous outfits and even more outrageous, drugged-fueled situations. Jennifer Coolidge is wonderful in her least flashy role to date as the woman Mr. Pat feels has betrayed him. There is also fine support by Linda Evans as the corpse (also seen in a long memory flashback) and by Michael Urie as her nephew who is sympathetic to Mr. Pat’s story. This is outrageous fun and sad as Mr. Pat realizes that the world has marched on while his own life has stagnated in a retirement home. But as much as I wanted to embrace Mr. Pat, he is a bit too abrasive to like, but I do admire his tenacity. 

VIP: The directors. Todd Stephens, who wrote and directed two of the films in the adrenaline-drenched, campy “Another Gay Movie” series, has not lost his quirky sensibility but has made his most (relatively) mature film to date. His Mr. Pat, who is based on a real person in his life, is an indelible, strong-willed character losing his fight to retain his dignity. Benjamin Cleary has already won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 2016 for “Stutterer,” and his “Swan Song” – his first feature – is an assured debut. His tone is consistent, if a bit predictable in its arc. But his work with his actors and his vision of this future world is confident and I look forward to his next film.

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