It takes a certain amount of flair (or fortuitous luck) to make a film that is solidly formulaic and yet genre busting all at the same time. Yet that is exactly what first-time filmmaker Sue Kramer has done with her film, Gray Matters, (executive produced by Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways helmer Alexander Payne) which recently premiered to its first New York audience during the New York Times’ Art and Leisure Weekend.
“I’m a New York filmmaker,” Kramer told the packed audience, “and this movie is a love letter to New York.”
It is also a love letter to the screwball romantic comedies of old, re-imagined as a gay-awakening farce.
“I wanted to tip the normal romantic comedy on its head,” Kramer admitted.
When Gray Matters opens, it is to a couple dancing. They are Gray (Heather Graham) and Sam (Tom Cavanagh), as beautiful a couple as one would hope to find. It isn’t until a dinner party some minutes later that we discover along with an embarrassed dinner guest that the pair is, in fact, brother and sister. Inseparable, Gray and Sam share everything—apartment, opinions, love of 1940’s musicals—which seems quirky and endearing to them and to us until Charlie (Bridget Moynahan) enters the picture and throws everything into discord.
The ensuing romance follows the predictable structure of hundreds of romantic comedies that have gone before, with the exception that the sexual tension is not only a his and hers affair, but the slow and bumbling sexual awakening of someone just beginning to suspect they are gay. You see, brother and sister both fall hard for Charlie, which is an unsettling revelation to relationship-challenged Gray.
Sam, who marries Charlie almost overnight (an incident based on the director’s own life) is delighted that his sister has final come to terms with her sexuality, but struggles with unexpected jealousy when Gray admits to feelings for the oblivious Charlie. Gray, meanwhile, tries to come to terms with her budding and exasperating feelings, looking for advice and counsel from clueless shrink Sissy Spacek, twitterpated Scottish cabbie Alan Cumming, and vivacious co-worker Molly Shannon. Shannon is over-the-top and hilarious while Cumming charming pulls the carpet out from under every scene he’s in.
While the light and whimsical comic timing of the leads carry the film far (Ed’s Cavanagh is his usual twitchy and amiable self, Graham is luminescent, and Moynahan spends half the film in various states of ravishing undress), even they cannot blind us to Gray Matters' many shortcomings.
Gray Matters is obviously a freshman effort. It suffers from an awkward and uncomplicated script, an overload of inauthentic classic cinema references, a desperate need for tighter editing, oddly amateurish sound quality, an overall situational awareness that owes far more to the world of the television sitcom than to feature films, and, in the end, a certain amount of preachiness that is both unbelievable and unprovoked.
Still, it tackles a subject matter few mainstream films have been brave enough to confront (the 1997 Kevin Kline vehicle In & Out comes to mind) and it must be said that that took a certain amount of bravery.
Sue Kramer told me that the film was based on her experiences with her own sister, who is gay, though she refuses to see the film as a homosexual polemic.
“It’s not about being gay. It’s about being in love. It’s about being true to yourself and who you are.”