Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Follies And Nonsense, Whims And Inconsistencies Do Divert Me, I Own, And I Laugh At Them Whenever I Can

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2016
Director: Byrum Geisler
Cast: Ethan Sharrett, Chase Conner, Brandi Price 
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The only thing shocking about the fact that they made a gay version of Pride and Prejudice is that it took until freaking 2016 to do it. This is homophobia at work, ladies and gentlemen. (For the record, I'm aware that there is a long history of queer Austen adaptations in theatre, but this ain't no blog about plays, is it?) That movie was called Before the Fall, and it is just as low budget and awkward as the gay cinema I came to know and love as a fresh-out-the-closet teen. So at least some things never change.

That and the fact that gay casting directors ALWAYS know how to cast a hot romantic lead. This is the first Darcy where I haven't had to squint real hard to find particularly appealing.

The interesting thing about Before the Fall is that in its update of the source material, it doesn't just gender-swap Lizzy Bennet. There's a lot of elements that are shifted around here, and it's actually kind of fun to see where they ended up, even if they were changed just for the sake of being different rather than any sort of narrative need.

Here's what we're dealing with. Ben Bennett (Ethan Sharrett) is an attorney in small town Virginia who accidentally insults the client of his coworker George Wickham (Jonathan Horvath). That client is Lee Darcy (Chase Conner), an alcoholic who pushed his girlfriend during an argument about the fact that they haven't had sex in a year. We're treated to a truly bizarre flashback about Darcy's dad working a gas station attendant while his son waits in the car, so we know that the man has been struggling with his sexuality.

Cut to several months later, when Nature Preserve board member Chuck Bingley (Jason Mac, who is unspeakably hot and should have been cast as Ben Bennett, but whatcha gonna do) brings Darcy - now in recovery - to a welcome party at Ben's. Over the course of a truly insane amount of hiking trips, the two are thrown into a tumultuous acquaintance that affects their lives forever, as well as those of Darcy's shrill, homophobic girlfriend Cathy Burge (Carol Marie Rinn) and Ben's BFF Jane Gardiner (Brandi Price), who falls for Bingley immediately and treats us to the film's only sex scene which is between two straight people for reasons that are entirely impossible to fathom.

Who invited you people? You have twenty of your own movies!

So basically, not only is there a gay element, but Darcy and Lizzy/Ben have essentially swapped personalities. Ben is the rich one whose pride is harming their relationship, and Darcy is the poor sap who is prejudiced against him thanks to an overheard comment. Does this alter the dynamics of the story in any way? OK, no it doesn't, but I feel like it should. We're too many degrees away from the source material for that to matter though.

Before the Fall is merely a lark. It plays with the toolbox provided by Jane Austen in ways that are fun to spot if you're as deep into her work as I am, but not entirely worthy of their own feature length motion picture. And some of the narrative wrinkles they add send the story down rabbit holes it can never quite recover from. Giving Darcy a girlfriend was a huge mistake (first of all, with the way their relationship makes them feel trapped, the filmmakers should have at least committed and made them husband and wife, otherwise it doesn't make a whole lot of sense), and leads to a lot of nasty little accidental subtext that implies that it's not abuse if it's not a felony, and that Cathy is the true villain in all of this because she's a shrill, hysterical woman. Painting her with a brush of homophobia and bitterness doesn't absolve Darcy of pushing her to the ground, which is a thing we see happen. In slow motion. Repeated three times like it's The f**king Graduate.

This is probably the right time to mention that the filmmaking itself isn't superb, but expecting any sort of technical brilliance from a hyper-indie gay film is like eating at Taco Bell and expecting not to spend an hour in the bathroom afterward. Shots awkwardly cut off people at the neck, the comic relief moments provided by two execrable gay stereotypes have the pacing of a drunken turtle, and the acting is a little underwhelming. This is pretty par for the course, honestly. 

Although, unusually, one thing Before the Fall does pull out all the stops on is its nature cinematography. If this were just a travelogue of Virginian hiking trails, it would be an unimpeachable masterpiece. The color scheme and gentle autumnal tranquility of any exterior shot sends you plunging into a perfectly serene mood, and that atmosphere does wonders for the mostly inane story playing out within its confines.

Forget these white doofuses, look at that beautiful lake!

So all in all, Before the Fall isn't a complete and total waste of time, just most of one. It's a gay film that neuters the sexuality of its leads, fails to understand its source material and the implications of the diversions it takes, and fails to drum up any sort of chemistry between the two leads in the first place. I know nothing about the ages or actual sexualities of Sharrett or Conner, so I won't blame either of those things, but Ben is presented as unbearably milquetoast and all of Conner's generally fine smoldering glances right off his impenetrable armor of blandness. 

This could be the fault of a script that fails to justify why anyone would particularly want to fall in love with him, and has Darcy's transition into a romantic lead take literally the entire movie. This could be the fault of an editor who has no idea how to drum up tension, even in scenes where characters are literally yelling at each other. This could be the fault of a complete and total misunderstanding of human relationships, and especially the blossoming of homosexual thought and feeling. It doesn't matter what the reason is, though. It's a weak little trifle any way you slice it, and there's no one ingredient that could have improved the listless mush of a story we're presented with here.

TL;DR: Before the Fall is a predictably mediocre effort, but it's more engaging than one might expect.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1128
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice 
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Pride and Prejudice (miniseries - Langton, 1995)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)

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