Todd Haynes’ new movie MAY DECEMBER is one nasty piece of fun. Its story concerns an actress (played by Natalie Portman) studying a housewife (Julianne Moore) who is to be the subject of her next film, and how all kinds of lines get blurred between the two. The Moore character is also a thinly-veiled riff on Mary Kay Letourneau, the notorious teacher who went to jail for second-degree rape of a male student in 1997. Haynes has plenty to say about that scandalous affair as well as how Hollywood exploits such tragedies, not to mention the collateral damage of such sins. It all makes for one of the more scathing films in quite some time. Funny, but quite vicious.
Portman’s character of Elizabeth Berry is mostly a TV actress, so she wants to ace the golden opportunity she’s getting to render a real-life person on the big screen. Thus, she ventures to the outskirts of Savannah, GA where Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore) lives with her husband and family. Gracie bakes goodies for the locals while her hubby Joe (Charles Melton) is employed at the local hospital as a nurse. And, surprise surprise, Gracie’s husband is that pre-teen boy, all grown up now. They weathered the scandal, making it through Gracie’s pregnancy and imprisonment. Now, they’re living in a nice house on the beach with the eldest daughter Sofia (Jocelyn Shelfo) in college and twins Charlie and Mary (Gabriel Chung and Elizabeth Yu) about to graduate high school.
Haynes almost immediately shows us that the Yoo’s existence is hardly the paradise the beach town would suggest. Gracie’s ex still lives in Savannah, as does her wayward son from her first marriage. The denizens in the ‘burg have never really stopped wagging their tongues about the scandal or its fallout, and the Yoos know it. Such a sword of Damocles hanging over them creates uneasiness wherever they go. And now, they’ve got an ambitious and morally ambiguous thespian shadowing them everywhere. Elizabeth becomes obsessed with Gracie, digging up more dirt on her past, and sd on her too. She starts imitating Gracie’s hairstyle, her gait, and even the lilting lisp in her speech.
Tensions build with each encounter and as violence seems just a heartbeat away, Haynes’ work becomes more and Moore melodramatic. Gracie starts to unravel. Elizabeth crosses a number of sacred lines. And other family secrets surface, none of them pleasant. Portman and Moore skate up right to the edge of parody but pull back just enough. Meanwhile, Marcelo Zarvos’ score riffs on Michel Legrand’s soap opera-ish score he wrote for THE GO-BETWEEN back in 1971.
It’s no surprise that Haynes and his screenwriters Sammy Burch and Alex Mechanix don’t hesitate to show how off-kilter Gracie still is, and God knows Moore can do brittle and loony better than anyone, but it’s surprising how thoroughly the writer/director indicts Elizabeth for her sins. In many ways, she is the real villain of the peace and Portman plays her as a slightly more glamorous Eve Harrington. Haynes’ truest sympathies lie with Joe and the kids and yet none of them are saints either.
MAY DECEMBER is a bit predictable in its SINGLE WHITE FEMALE machinations, not to mention the Letourneau story hardly feels fresh these days. But this film is still a very compelling and effective black comedy, one not afraid to indict women for using sex as a weapon, or children for using their victimhood equally so. This material is far from heaven, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to watch…even if laughing at them says something less than complimentary about us in the audience.