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Sugarless look at '50s angst

Todd Haynes attempts something wonderful with his new film, Far From Heaven, and succeeds on every count except the one that counts most.

Haynes wants to revive a film genre made obsolete by its own timidity, the "message movies" of the 1950s that seldom had enough courage to ask tough questions and usually settled for easy answers.

Interracial and homosexual romances happened in the 1950s in real life, but rarely in films. Race relations inspired films such as Imitation of Life and Pinky, which brought up the topic and then sugar-coated it for audience appeal. Films aimed to make viewers cry rather than think, washing away white-bred guilt with a few tears. Few filmmakers dared to broach the subject of homosexuality, and certainly not as a marriage problem. Husbands were seduced away from home by dames, not dudes.

Haynes' intent with Far From Heaven is to replicate the concept of 1950s social melodrama and elevate it with today's candor. The first mission is a glorious success. Except for recognizable contemporary actors like Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid, Far From Heaven doesn't look or sound any different from tear-jerkers of a half-century ago. The problem is that it doesn't feel very different, either. Haynes is bolder than his predecessors in some ways, but nearly as bashful about tackling the issues in the final analysis.

Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a Connecticut housewife who seems to have a perfect life, at least for that era. She raises her children, keeps a tidy house, works on community projects and poses in advertisements for her husband's television sales business, making her a local celebrity. Dennis Quaid co-stars as Frank Whitaker, nearly a typical 1950s male: always professionally dressed, diligent at work and the king of his castle. What is atypical about Frank is that he's gay.

Cathy's shock when she discovers Frank kissing a man shatters the glossy innocence of the genre. What has looked so far like an affectionate tribute to 1950s cinema introduces a level of honesty that audiences of that decade wouldn't allow. The next few scenes are the best in Haynes' film, with Frank trying to palm off his homosexuality as a mistake, visiting a doctor to "beat this thing." We watch a conflicted marriage crumbling in a time and cinematic style usually reserved for Donna Reed types.

Then Haynes gets distracted by another marital threat barely addressed with the same sense of modernized nostalgia. Cathy strikes up a friendship with the new gardener, a gentle African-American named Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). That isn't a good idea in a small (and small-minded) community. Tongues begin to wag, Cathy's reputation suffers, and Frank is angered.

At that point, Far From Heaven begins to unravel. The emotion we've invested in Cathy and Frank's situation is divided and therefore diluted by her growing attraction to Raymond. It simply isn't plausible that a woman already saddled with one shame would take on another and, without spoiling the ending, Haynes' resolution seems a bit timid in hindsight.

But what a marvelous time viewers can have before that third act misfires. Far From Heaven is beautifully photographed by Edward Lachman in Technicolor-bright hues while a sweeping musical score by Elmer Bernstein reminds us of the string-pulling performed by Alfred Newman and Frank Skinner in the 1950s. Every detail from costumes to cars is dead-on, and Haynes sprinkles his script with the kind of stilted dialogue movies supplied then and audiences imitated.

The three central actors offer some of the best work of their careers. Moore never strikes a false note as Cathy, even when the screenplay dictates some questionable decisions and reactions. Quaid has never been better, ditching his good-ol'-boy swagger to play an anguished soul torn between two lives. Haysbert's quiet, dignified concern gives Far From Heaven three strong contenders for Oscar nominations. Despite its wan payoff, Haynes' film deserves that kind of attention.


Far From Heaven

Grade: B+

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson

Screenplay: Todd Haynes

Rating: PG-13; strong sexual situations, profanity, mature themes

Running time: 107 min.