The Seattle Times
In many of the most interesting scenes in Todd Haynes’ engaging melodrama “May December,” one woman simply gazes at another, trying to understand her, trying to crack a code. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is an actor, famous for a role in a perhaps not-quite-top-tier television show, who’s been hired to star in an upcoming movie. She’ll play a real-life woman named Gracie (Julianne Moore), notorious in the tabloids for many years after serving jail time for raping a 13-year-old boy.
More than 20 years later, the two are married with three nearly grown children: Gracie is now in her late 50s, her husband Joe (Charles Melton) in his mid-30s. Apprehensive but hopeful that perhaps this movie might help the world better understand their story of what she characterizes as true love, Gracie has invited Elizabeth to visit them at their home.
All of this is likely ringing a few bells, so it’s worth noting that “May December” both is and isn’t the story of the late Mary Kay Letourneau. Names and various details have been changed, including the locale (Savannah, Georgia, rather than the Pacific Northwest), and Gracie’s occupation; here, she’s not a teacher, but met Joe working in a pet store. (Haynes is trying to have it both ways, though; some magazine coverage that Elizabeth consults for research meticulously copies well-known photos of Letourneau.) But the essential outline of Samy Burch’s screenplay echoes the facts of that well-known story, letting Elizabeth represent all of us as voyeurs, wondering what life was like inside that marriage, how these two seemingly ordinary people could emerge from the tumult to live a seemingly ordinary life.
The answer depicted in “May December” is that they can’t: The childlike Gracie clings to fantasy (“You seduced me,” she tells Joe of their first encounter, when he was in seventh grade), Joe seems sad and stunted, and the people left in their wake — their children, Gracie’s first husband — harbor varying degrees of anger. But the story Haynes wants to tell isn’t that straightforward. A master of elegant melodrama (see Moore in his “Far from Heaven,” a film of uncanny beauty), he comes at this familiar tale from a different angle, letting us see Elizabeth seeing Gracie. Moore employs a subtle, impeccable lisp in Gracie’s voice; Portman studiously echoes it. The two women gaze side-by-side into a mirror, putting on makeup; Elizabeth seems to transform when donning Gracie’s lipstick. And Elizabeth — amusingly played by Portman as a self-absorbed actor all too aware of her own beauty — isn’t exactly a neutral observer. In a conversation with local high school drama students, she crosses a few lines of appropriateness herself.
“May December” is often weirdly funny: The swoonily gorgeous soundtrack (adapted from a 1971 score by Michel Legrand, for the movie “The Go-Between”) becomes a character, heightening emotions to the point of absurdity. But it’s also a showcase for three devastating performances: Moore’s Gracie seems so fragile you wonder if she might crumble before our eyes; Portman’s Elizabeth eyes her with an almost vampiric hunger; Melton’s Joe, droopy and murmuring, seems a faint sketch of a man. The movie-within-a-movie’s final scene has an eerie inevitability to it; in it, life, art and something terribly dark merge. We watch, increasingly uncomfortable, but can’t look away.
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Running time: 117 minutes
MPA rating: R (for some sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language)
Where to watch: Opens Nov. 16 in theaters
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