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'Uncle Frank': A Melodramatic Meal, Undercooked And Over-Seasoned

L to R: Frank (Paul Bettany) Beth (Sophia Lillis) and Walid (Peter Macdissi) pull up to the bumper in <em>Uncle Frank</em>.
Brownie Harris
Amazon Studios
L to R: Frank (Paul Bettany) Beth (Sophia Lillis) and Walid (Peter Macdissi) pull up to the bumper in Uncle Frank.

Some quick back-of-the-envelope math: By my reckoning, this represents the 1,523rd review I have written over the course of my career to feature the phrase, "an underused Judy Greer," and I am officially sick of it.

But writer/director Alan Ball's achingly well-intentioned melodrama Uncle Frank, which premieres on Amazon Prime on Wednesday, November 24th, has even more to answer for. Because it's not just an underused Judy Greer (sigh) who spends the bulk of the film languishing on the sidelines.

Look at this lineup: Stephen Root as the abusive patriarch of an expansive South Carolina family. Margo Martindale as its warm-hearted matriarch. Lois Smith as a devout aunt. Steve Zahn as the favored son.

Each gets just a moment or two, a brief speech and a few fleeting reaction shots. In terms of actorly chops, Ball might as well have fueled up a fleet of Maseratis only to mount them up on blocks in his driveway.

Though it makes no sense as a casting strategy, on a plot level, at least, an argument can be made for it. Uncle Frank isn't the story of that family, it's the the story of the oldest son (Paul Bettany) who long ago fled it, in order to pursue a career as an academic — and a life as an openly gay man — in the New York City of the 1960s. They represent everything Frank ran away from — his vicious, belligerent father, in particular — so I suppose it makes sense that they only bookend his story. (Still: When you cast Margo Martindale and then parcel out to her one measly opening scene fretting about children getting too near a hot stove, and then a series of moments in the third act where she's tasked to radiate a too-sudden and credulity-straining level of acceptance, you're not appreciating the tools at your disposal.)

Bettany's great as Frank, however, managing to shoulder the weight of the too-many, too-familiar burdens the thin script weighs him down with — Frank's not merely closeted, you see, he's also struggling with addiction while enduring flashbacks to an adolescent trauma that engenders in him a lacerating sense of guilt, which in turn causes him to sink into pitched self-loathing. Ball's tendency to over-salt the melodramatic stew in this way isn't new — recall Chris Cooper's character from his script for American Beauty, who wasn't simply an abusive father, but also a snarling homophobe, a closeted gay man, and, not for nothing, probably a Nazi.

In the film's opening scenes Frank is idolized by his teenaged niece Beth (Sophia Lillis). Four years later she follows him to New York to enroll at NYU, where he teaches. When he reluctantly allows her a peek into the life he's kept from his family — featuring his live-in boyfriend partner Walid (an ebullient Peter Macdissi) — the film feels like it wants to, it needs to, settle in for a bit, and breathe. It's now the early 1970s, after all, but that fact only truly registers on the level of the film's hair and wardrobe; Ball is in too much of a rush to kill off Frank's father and force a road trip back to South Carolina for the funeral.

Everything about Uncle Frank feels oddly impatient; characters like Frank, Beth and the rest of the family get frog-marched through their respective growth arcs before individual moments along the way have a chance to resonate. Beth's a timid mouse one moment, and verbally fileting a sexist gas station attendant the next. And instead of marking out the time for the family to come to accept Frank in different ways, according their individual terms and personal timetables (which is, by the way, the way it really happens), the film crams the exposure of his secret into a sudden, ridiculously contrived scene that it then immediately undercuts, just to skip ahead to the warm hugs and salty tears already.

On his television series, Ball allowed his characters the time they needed to cycle through their disparate traumas in realistic (Six Feet Under) and wildly unrealistic (True Blood) ways. They could start off as thin caricatures, but the sheer cumulative buildup of screentime over multiple seasons couldn't help but lend them added layers, nuance and dramatic weight. Uncle Frank's intentions are to be admired, and its acting is outstanding — but if it's so frustratingly unwilling to truly invest in its characters, why should we?

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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