Director: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
I have a love-hate relationship with Looking, HBO’s gay slice-of-life dramedy series. While the low key atmosphere of the show has provided some of the network’s best material (season 1’s episode-long date focusing on just two cast members and season 2’s funeral are two masterpiece-level half hours), the ensemble is plagued by obnoxious characters (Agustín passed the torch to Patrick after season 1, but he’s still such a Samantha) and long stretches of aimlessness. And then I actually got paid to recap the second season on The Backlot, which tipped the scales a little more toward love.
Anyway, Looking conked its head on its low ratings and swiftly perished, but here’s the thing. HBO actually made good on its promise to conclude the series with a movie, which was greenlit in record time. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that the show’s executive producer who signed on to direct was indie darling Andrew Haigh, of the iconic gay film Weekend and last year’s Oscar-nominated 45 Years. At any rate, we got our movie.
I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, and I’m still not convinced that it really exists.
In Looking: The Movie, our lead character Patrick Murray (Jonathan Groff) returns to San Francisco after nine months. He left abruptly because he decided he needed some space to grow up a little (read: a lot) following a disastrous romantic entanglement with his taken boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) that threw a wrench into his blossoming relationship with the long-suffering Richie (Raúl Castillo), a perfect angel cursed to walk this blasted Earth. He’s in town for his friend Agustín’s wedding to Eddie (Daniel Franzese of f**king Mean Girls), which reunites him with friends Dom (Murray Bartlett), now running a successful chicken window, and Doris (Lauren Weedman), the sassy token straight lady, as well as… Richie and his alcoholic Social Justice Boyfriend, Brady (Chris Perfetti).
Cue lots of contemplative staring as Patrick navigates the weekend, having conversations about life, love, and how not to end up like your parents with a revolving door of old friends and new people he meets along the way. He claims to have learned a lot during his time away, and that he’s no longer such a self-centered neurotic.
But, who are we kidding, we know this is what’s going through his head any time somebody else talks about themselves.
Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick. This is hardly a movie. It’s a triple length season finale, and it does nothing to hide that fact. It would be impossible for a new viewer to zap this onto their screen from HBO Go and understand a single shred of what’s happening. It would be like starting Lost in the middle of that season where the island started time traveling for some reason. But is it a solid series finale? Of course it is.
Appropriately sending off this show that shied away from hyperbole at every turn, Looking: The Movie is neither the best of what the series had to offer nor the worst, though it skews firmly toward the “best” side. Typically plot-lite, it makes the most of its brief resurrection in terms of once again depicting the human experience in all its messy, sexy, disgusting glory. This could easily have been just another drab mumblecore movie about finding oneself and celebrating Doing My Own Thing in a vague, self-satisfied way. I mean, it IS about that, but it finds the human characters trapped in the amber of that particular subgenre.
Like Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List, Looking does a lot of things before it passes on, hitting the wall with every strand of philosophical spaghetti in the pot. It covers such a vast array of thoughts and feelings from a thirtysomething gay man that it’s almost dizzying, but from its immense specificity is born a universal truth. Every single person watching it, be they gay, straight, bi, old, young, drunk, whatever, will find something to latch onto in Looking. It’s a film that holds up a mirror to a black part of life that we’d rather not think about, but treats it with immense warmth and tenderness.
And all this is tucked inside a story with a protagonist so unstable, the film could literally at any moment smash cut to him having sex with whatever man, woman, plant, etc. he’s sharing the frame with at the time.
This movie would be nothing without its cast, though the side characters make much more impression than our main three friends. Patrick is still a bland cypher, Dom is given next to nothing to work with, and Agustín pulls something good out of his wedding jitters, but he’s stuck with the unenviable task of being the focal point for his friends’ hang-ups about relationships. The show has always had problems balancing its leads, and while they’re played well, this plot belongs to whiny ol’ Patrick as he greedily guzzles up the run time.
The true MVP here is, as always, the massively undervalued Lauren Weedman. Typically ignored because her character is only there to flavor a stew with too many carrots, Weedman once again effortlessly delivers an irresistible prickly charm that’s almost Bill Murray-ish while letting her stunted emotions and deep fear of happiness peep through the cracks. She’s marvelous, and while I wish she was given more chance to explore the range I know she’s capable of, she’s a satisfying, grounding presence here. Newcomer Tyne Daly (of Hello, My Name is Doris) is also superb, transforming a stock character (a city hall wedding officiant who bestows some Old Person Relationship Wisdom) into a three-dimensional, thoroughly relatable presence.
This deep understanding of what makes people tick courses through the film in even the smallest characters (save Brady, who contorts into a leering, one-note villain so we can root for Patrick, who proved in season 2 that he’s far from a worthy choice for Richie). This is perhaps best exemplified by Russell Tovey. He returns for only one scene, but it’s a doozy. The most unequivocal “bad person” in the series, here he throws everything out of whack with a subtly emotional performance that’s by far his best Looking work, bar none.
It’s telling that this part of the review is only discussing character, because that’s pretty much all Looking: The Movie has to offer as a piece of cinema. It’s still shackled to the small scale of television, even with a feature length run time. That’s not to say it’s not well put together. Quite the opposite. A scene in a club set to Perfume Genius’ melancholy ode to doomed romance “Hood” is one of the most indelible images Andrew Haigh has ever crafted. But Looking’s low budget and lower expectations hobble it a bit, preventing it from being more than just a very good TV farewell.
TL;DR: Looking: The Movie is a decent, satisfying finale for a show that had its share of problems.
Rating: 7/10Word Count: 1187