Forty Shades of Blue
October 8th, 2005
The prospect of seeing Rip Torn is almost reason enough to see any film. Almost. For while Mr. Torn turns in yet another stellar performance in Ira Sachs’ down-home drama “Forty Shades of Blue,” the film itself is so shallow and abhorrent, one might find themselves trying to think of all the different shades of blue mentioned in the title instead of paying attention to what’s going on in the film.
Here, Torn plays Alan James, a Memphis-based music producer who remains a local legend based on his 1960s and 1970s glory days, when he helped create the Memphis Soul sound. James is practically the other side of the coin of the Maury Dann character Torn played in 1972’s little-seen “Payday,” trading in that manipulative, petulant country and western singer for this controlling, womanizing music producer. Torn hasn’t created a character so much as dusted off a long unused suit and pleasantly discovering it still fits beautifully, even if it, like its wearer, hasn’t aged so well. Alan James may not have popped as many pills as Maury Dann, but James could probably drink Dann under the table and would go toe-to-toe when it came to enjoying carnal knowledge with the opposite sex. Alan James somehow survived his excesses, and by the time our film begins, he is being honored with a lifetime achievement award.
Except “Forty Shades of Blue” isn’t really about Alan James as it is about Laura, Alan’s Russian live-in girlfriend, whom he met on tour in Moscow several years before, and her relationship with Alan’s grown son Michael, who has a complicated relationship with his father. Michael has been away from Memphis for many years, and was supposed to arrive from his home in Los Angeles to attend the awards function with his father, but isn’t on his plane when it arrives, nor calls ahead to tell his father of his delay. When Michael finally does arrive in town, he is too late to be at his father’s side, so he instead goes to his childhood home, which is empty because his father is in a hotel room with another woman and Laura is royally drunk and getting her own ride home with another man. This, in a nutshell, is the relationship between Laura and Alan, despite their having a young son together. When Michael first sees Laura, it’s through a small crack in his childhood bedroom’s sliding doors, where he observes Laura getting hit upon by (and rejecting) the gentleman who gave her a ride home.
This is an important point, because later, when Michael spots this gentleman in a bar and get in a fight with him, Michael does so out of some sort of jealousy due to his emerging feelings for Laura. But since we saw Laura clearly reject this man before, Michael’s indignation is unfounded. But then, most of the film follows this kind of twisted logic. It’s perfectly acceptable for Alan to have affairs, but it is supposed to be shocking when Michael and Laura sleep together. Alan is allowed to be a heavy drinker because he is the artistic type, but God forbid Laura gets to get a little loaded herself. Michael has issues with his father’s infidelities, but has no problem cheating on his pregnant wife with his father’s lover. It’s these kinds of hypocritical judgments which makes “Forty Shades of Blue” a painful exercise in futility, for there is nothing particularly special or interesting about Alan and Laura and Michael, about what they do or what they say. Which makes the capable performances of Torn, Dina Korzun (as Laura) and Darren Burrows (as Michael) that much more disappointing. Watching good actors with potentially stellar characters trapped in lackluster situations is like watching Alex Rodriguez hit homers on a Little League diamond: they’re gonna knock it out of the park, because they’re playing on a field designed for people with far smaller skills.
At one point, Michael gets up to give a toast to Alan at the family’s annual barbeque bash, and the son rips the father for being a horrible dad and showing him the wrong way to raise a child. Yet, throughout their time together, we never learn what happened in Michael’s childhood that read to their rift nor do they ever attempt to repair the problem. But then, by Michael’s age, the traditional roles of father and son would be less significant as they would have been when he was much younger, so why these two can’t just talk for a while and get it done with is a bothersome cloud which hangs over the film like a bad storm waiting to break.
”Forty Shades of Blue” is unique in one sense, being one of the few movies about a love triangle where there are four parties involved in the triangle, and that two of the parties never find out about the affair at the heart of the story. We are deprived of that clichéd, overtly emotional scene when one of the partners explodes in a fit of rage when they learn of the illicit liaison, except in this movie, it might have been just the thing to keep the audience involved in the overall story, and might have gotten the film a longer shelf life, as even if it would have been morally wrong of Alan to flip out when he discovers Michael has been sleeping with Laura, depriving Rip Torn of one of those moments might have cost him serious awards consideration.
Maybe somewhere down the road, Ira Sachs will find the story that takes him away from being a regional filmmaker and gives him stronger national appeal. But “Forty Shades of Blue” isn’t that film.
My rating: C