Conversion therapy’s true nature outed in ‘Boy Erased’

BOY ERASED
Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) comforts her conflicted son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), in Boy Erased. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Most of us know gay conversion therapy is a hoax that preys on the fears of gay people and their families, especially those whose religion rejects non-traditional sexual orientations. What most of us don’t know—unless we’ve been unlucky enough to go through it—is just how this therapy attempts to bring about its unlikely transformation.

One person who does know is Gerrard Conley, whose parents pushed him into conversion therapy and who subsequently wrote Boy Erased, a memoir about his experience. The book has been brought to the big screen in a tale that is both harrowing and illuminating.

Directed by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay and portrays a key supporting character, the flick begins by spelling out the dilemma faced by its teenage protagonist.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of a Baptist preacher in a conservative Arkansas community. In an early scene, the Rev. Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) stops in the middle of a sermon to ask those who are imperfect to raise their hands. Of course, everyone does, but Jared seems to ponder the question before joining in. Maybe he’s already worried about the troubling thoughts he has hidden from others and barely acknowledges himself.

On the surface, Jared appears to be a “normal” kid. He even has a girlfriend, whom his father and mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), fully expect to become his future wife. They’re disappointed when Jared breaks up with her before going off to college.

But their real shock comes when they receive an anonymous phone call from someone on campus who accuses their son of homosexual leanings. Jared initially denies the charge but eventually admits it may be true. Faced with an ultimatum from his father—change or be ostracized from the family—he agrees to give conversion therapy a try.

Jared’s first days in the program seem harmless enough. Instructors led by Victor Sykes (director Edgerton in a restrained but creepy performance) try to reason the participants out of their sexual preference. You’re not born gay, they’re told, any more than athletic participant Cameron (Britton Sear) was born wanting to play football. And if you choose to be gay, the argument goes, you can choose to stop being gay.

It’s not long, though, before Jared begins noticing signs that the therapy is neither as effective nor as benign as he’d hoped. A fellow participant urges him to simply play along with the program in order to convince the instructors he’s on his way to a cure. But playing along becomes more difficult when increasingly coercive measures are used to achieve the desired results.

The film reveals Jared’s state of mind with the help of well-placed flashbacks to times when he was torn between his religious beliefs and his sexual longings. He dearly wants to change in order to remain part of his family, but his faith in the therapy falters as his experiences at the clinic become more and more nightmarish. The resulting tension builds to a wrenching climax.

This earnest tale is told with the help of a cast that is almost uniformly fine. I seldom find Kidman’s portrayals completely convincing, but she’s at least adequate as Jared’s concerned mother. Meanwhile, Hedges wins our sympathy as Jared, and Crowe does a fine job of convincing us the Rev. Eamons is a caring parent despite the hell he puts his son through.

Because the story is based on actual people, it ends by relating what eventually happens to the characters’ real-life counterparts. Some of the developments are uplifting, and at least one is surprising. Or maybe it won’t be to those who are good at reading between the lines.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Boy Erased (rated R) opened Nov. 15 at the Gateway Film Center and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

McCarthy pulls off against-type turn as misanthropic con-woman

Can You Ever Forgive Me
Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

By Richard Ades

Lee Israel’s abrasive and self-destructive personality is established in the first scene of Can You Ever Forgive Me? While working a late-night job, Lee (Melissa McCarthy) hits the wrong person with an F-bomb and is immediately fired.

This launches a downward spiral that threatens to expel Lee from the New York apartment she shares with her ailing cat. The spiral ends only when it’s replaced by a moral and legal spin out of control.

The fateful catalyst is a letter from a famous author that falls into Lee’s hands. Attempting to sell it to a dealer in literary ephemera, she’s told it would be worth more if only the subject matter weren’t so bland. An author herself—though one who has trouble even giving her latest books away—Lee seizes on the idea of manufacturing spicy correspondence supposedly written by luminaries such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward.

Her success in this dishonest new venture is ironic. After being told by her agent (Jane Curtin) that she won’t attract readers until she finds her own literary voice, Lee learns she can pull in big bucks by aping other writers’ voices.

Directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and based on the real-life Israel’s story, Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives McCarthy the chance to prove she has something to offer beyond her usual comic shtick. She doesn’t slough off the opportunity. Other than a brief scene near the end, McCarthy totally immerses herself in the skin of a woman who is not above lying and cheating others, yet is still her own worst enemy.

Though officially a lesbian, Lee is so leery of human interaction that she undermines every relationship or potential relationship. When a bookseller and would-be author (Dolly Wells) shows obvious interest in getting to know her, she responds with caution and defensiveness. We can’t admire Lee, but McCarthy’s portrayal makes it impossible not to feel for her. Her performance is by turns funny and touching.

If McCarthy’s portrayal is impressive for its depth and deviation from her usual output, co-star Richard E. Grant’s performance is memorable for its bravura spirit. Grant plays Jack Hock, an aging loner who seems to get through life on the strength of his wit and wits. After meeting in a gay bar, Jack and Lee are drawn together by their mutual fear of commitment and love of nasty pranks and alcohol. Though they obviously aren’t good for each other, they become inseparable.

Through all this, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay moves nimbly between acid humor and pathos. But it’s McCarthy’s sensitive performance and Heller’s equally sensitive direction that make it possible to care about Israel because we can see her moral compass is defective but not entirely beyond repair.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (rated R) opens Nov. 8 at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, Marcus Crosswoods Cinema and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Flash- and joke-filled ‘Aladdin’ sweeps romance under the carpet

Aladdin
A typically colorful scene from the touring production of Aladdin, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

Great songs, fine singing and dancing, nifty special effects, beautiful scenery: What else could you ask from a Broadway musical?

Well, other than a story you actually care about. Aladdin falls short in that respect, especially compared to other Disney musicals like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. But for most folks who caught the touring show Thursday at the Ohio Theatre, the production’s other attributes were more than enough.

Based on the 1992 animated film and boasting catchy Alan Menken tunes such as “Friend Like Me” and “Whole New World,” Aladdin arrived on Broadway in 2014. There it was nominated for five Tony Awards but won only for James Monroe Iglehart’s performance in the showiest role, the Genie.

In the touring production, much of the attention also is grabbed by the Genie portrayer, Michael James Scott, who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for laughter and applause. Equally committed, if less showy, performances are turned in by other cast members.

Clinton Greenspan leaps agilely and sings sweetly as poverty-stricken thief Aladdin, while Lissa DeGuzman gives Princess Jasmine a feisty, no-nonsense personality. (Is it just me, or does she remind you of SNL’s Melissa Villasenor?) As her father’s scheming adviser, Jafar, and his henchman, Iago, Jonathan Weir and Jay Paranada excel in comic villainy.

The cast plies its trade against a backdrop that is often eye-poppingly gorgeous thanks to Bob Crowley’s scenery and Natasha Katz’s lighting. Particularly spectacular is the gold- and jewel-encrusted cave where an important plot development takes place.

Aladdin cave
The magical cave where Aladdin and the Genie first meet

Speaking of the plot, it all stems from Jasmine’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal from a suitably royal suitor despite pressure from her aging father, the Sultan (Jerald Vincent). Jafar hopes to take advantage of her reluctance and the Sultan’s resulting lack of a successor by usurping the throne himself. But his plans go astray when he accidentally connects Aladdin with the Genie, who can grant the young thief anything he desires. And what he desires most is the beautiful Jasmine.

Though other Disney fairy tales have succeeded in keeping the youngest viewers enthralled while offering enough emotional depth to satisfy their parents and older siblings, Aladdin remains stubbornly shallow. We’re supposed to care whether Jasmine ends up with the title character, but we don’t, maybe because we’re given no reason to think love won’t win out. She’s such a strong-willed individual, and the Sultan such a doting father, that we don’t seriously believe she’ll be forced to marry someone she doesn’t want.

As if to make up for the tale’s emotional flatness, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw fills the production with colorful song-and-dance numbers marked by acrobatic moves with a vaguely Arabic flavor. On top of that, he and his cast tell the story in a relentlessly jokey manner that combines comic stereotypes with winking nods to popular culture and even to other Disney musicals. The approach reaches its zenith when the Genie and multiple dancers perform “Friend Like Me,” a huge Act 1 production number that, following a recent musical trend, is actually a parody of classic Broadway production numbers.

Needless to say, all the jokes, cultural references and parodies make it even harder to take Aladdin and Jasmine’s tale seriously. The only time the show allows us to care about their incipient romance is during the Act 2 number “A Whole New World,” which sends the pair on a breathtaking magic-carpet ride among the stars. It’s a heartfelt, if short-lived, moment.

Say this for the touring show: It spares no effort or expense in its attempt to impress and entertain. If you can get past its emotional stinginess, you’ll likely feel it succeeds.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Aladdin through Nov. 4 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34 to $99-plus. Contacts: 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com or capa.com.

Musical moments outshine remake’s tragic love story

A STAR IS BORN
Ally (Lady Gaga) and Jackson (Bradley Cooper) share a stage for the first time in A Star Is Born. (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

By Richard Ades

A Star Is Born has been made and remade so often, it must hit a chord with the American psyche. Either that, or it’s such a perfect star vehicle that Hollywood just can’t let it gather dust for long.

Whether it’s set in the movie industry (like the 1937 and 1954 versions) or the music industry (like the 1976 and current 2018 iterations), the tale centers on a couple who fall in love while her career is rising and his is drowning in a pool of alcohol. The result is a potent mix of drama, romance, histrionics and (in most versions) music, giving both of its stars a chance to shine.

Certainly Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga shine brightly in the current remake, which Cooper also co-wrote, produced and directed. The beginning is a particular joy.

The first scene throws us into the middle of a country-rock concert in which singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) holds forth to the adoration of his fans. Afterward, in desperate need of a drink, he instructs his driver to drop him off at what turns out to be a drag bar. It’s there he first hears and marvels at the vocal talents of Ally (Gaga), the only woman in the night’s lineup.

Having recently broken up with an insensitive boyfriend, Ally is at first reluctant when Jackson introduces himself and insists on getting to know both her and her music. But, encouraged by a co-worker (Anthony Ramos) and her supportive father (Andrew Dice Clay)—who thinks the attentions of a rock star would help get her own singing career off the ground—she eventually gives in. She accepts Jackson’s invitation to an out-of-town gig, where he unexpectedly prods her into joining him in a rendition of one of her own songs. The resulting duet is one of the most powerful musical moments in recent cinematic history.

So far, so good. Cooper is likably humble as Jackson, while Gaga offers an appealing portrayal of the self-doubting Ally and puts her powerful singing voice on full display without ever succumbing to melodramatic overkill. As a director, Cooper also proves to be competent, allowing not only him and Gaga but co-stars like Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle a chance to make their mark.

It’s only after the story begins down its preordained path toward tragedy that it loses some of its potency. Possible reasons:

1) A major part of the story is Jackson’s decline from popularity, but the singer seems to put on a good show no matter how drugged or boozed up he is. Why, exactly, are his fans turning against him?

2) Jackson urges Ally to remain true to herself rather than letting fame change her. Yet when she allows her agent, Rez (Rafi Gavron), to turn her into a glitzy singer of shallow anthems, he says nothing. It thus becomes unclear whether their growing relationship problems are due to Jackson’s jealousy over her success or his disappointment over how she achieved it. (The situation also raises the question of whether the movie downplays the issue of Ally’s selling out to avoid biting the hand of the industry that feeds Lady Gaga in real life.)

The upshot of these weaknesses is that the tale’s tragic ending seems less organic and inevitable than it should. It’s certainly less organic and inevitable than it was in 1954’s blockbuster remake, which also benefited from Judy Garland’s best-ever performance as a rising movie star and James Mason’s depiction of the fading matinee idol who becomes her mentor.

As a tale of blossoming romance, the latest version of A Star Is Born strikes gold. As a musical, it strikes platinum. It’s only when the flick reaches for tragedy that it fails to find the mother lode.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

A Star Is Born (rated R) opens Oct. 5 in theaters nationwide.

Personable monarch informs new staging of ‘The King and I’

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The King of Siam (Jose Llana) and Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) take a spin around the dance floor in The King and I. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

When theater companies want to bring new life to a familiar work, they often rely on obvious changes. A recent example is Opera Columbus’s production of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, with its surreal scenery, avant-garde instrumentation and virtual chorus. And, of course, there are any number of Shakespearean productions that move the action to a different locale, time period or both.

The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher take a different tack with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical is still set in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s and still focuses on the evolving relationship between an authoritarian king and a widowed British teacher who’s hired to tutor his many children. But there’s a subtle difference from earlier productions, and certainly from the 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner.

It mainly can be found in the character of the king. As wonderfully played by Jose Llana, he is imperious and comically petulant, yet he’s also vulnerable and even sympathetic. We understand that he’s concerned for his country’s future, not wanting it to become a European protectorate like some of his neighbors. Though he has hired a British governess to teach his children, he comes to rely on her to help him modernize—basically, to Westernize—his country in order to convince Europe that Siam doesn’t need “protecting.”

As governess Anna Leonowens, Elena Shaddow is a charming mixture of politeness and stubborn determination. Though her Victorian upbringing makes it hard for her to accept the king’s polygamy, she does her best to get along with her royal employer. However, she refuses to bend on one matter: the king’s promise, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten, to provide her and her son, Louis (Rhyees Stump), with a home of their own.

The production opens with a gorgeous scene, courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder: the sunset arrival of the ship that brings Anna and Louis to Bangkok. After that, the scenery is far more restrained, with the outline of the palace walls in the background and long curtains playing a big role in delineating the change from one location to the next. It’s what goes on in front of the scenery that makes this staging so special.

Besides Anna and the king, key characters include Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera); the king’s head wife, Lady Thiang (Jane Almedilla); and Prince Chulalongkorn (Charlie Oh), his oldest son. Adding a dark subplot is the young and beautiful Tuptim (Q Lim), a “gift” from Burma who is forced to submit to the king’s advances despite being in love with another man, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).

Fine voices give some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved tunes their due, including Anna’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” and Anna and the king’s “Shall We Dance?” Panmeechao’s thin tones are a slight impediment to Lun Tha’s wistful duets with Tuptim, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” On the other hand, Almedilla’s matronly voice only adds depth to the show’s most touching number, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful.”

A large orchestra consisting mostly of local musicians (who, for a change, are actually named in the program) performs under Gerald Steichen’s baton. Christopher Gattelli’s adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography is especially delightful during Act 2’s prolonged ballet, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“Delightful” is a good adjective for the show in general, along with “illuminating” and “amazing.” And, hopefully, “unmissable.”

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The King and I April 24-29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$109+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com. For information on future tour stops, visit thekinganditour.com.

Is beauty in the eye of the self-beholder?

Amy Schumer stars in I FEEL PRETTY
Renee (Amy Schumer), who has just bumped her head in a gym-related accident, can’t believe how good she suddenly looks in I Feel Pretty. (Photos by Mark Schafer/Courtesy of STX Financing LLC)

By Richard Ades

Just hours before attending a preview screening of I Feel Pretty, I happened to be riding a stationary bike at my gym when the nearest TV showed Amy Schumer plugging the flick on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

DeGeneres praised the comedy, as you might expect, but she had especially kind words for the Schumer character’s final speech. She hinted that the consciousness-raising moment is the best part of the film.

Judging from the early reviews, many agree that I Feel Pretty has an important message, but they also seem to feel it undermines that message in a way that’s clumsy at best, unconscionable at worst. So when I say I actually enjoyed the flick, maybe I need to stress that I did not fall off that stationary bike and hit my head before seeing it.

Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein—and engagingly performed by Schumer and the rest of the cast—the comedy takes on society’s obsession with physical perfection and the damaging effects it has on the self-esteem of women and girls.

Schumer plays Renee Bennett, who worships beautiful people and thinks her life would improve if only she were one of them. Then she falls off a stationary bike at the gym and hits her head, only to pick herself up and realize she’s suddenly become drop-dead gorgeous. But, of course, it’s all in her shock-addled imagination. To everyone else, she’s the same average-looking woman she always was.

Well, not quite the same. Because Renee is convinced she’s exceptional, she begins radiating the kind of self-confidence that convinces other people she’s exceptional. Due to this new attitude—along with a fair amount of fortuitous timing—she begins turning her loveless, unsatisfying life around. Not only does she pursue romance, but she makes a play for a glamorous job in the headquarters of the cosmetics firm that previously has confined her to a grungy online-sales office.

Amy Schumer and Rory Scovel star in I FEEL PRETTY
Renee (Amy Schumer) and Ethan (Rory Scovel) get to know each other.

A film with a feminist message risks alienating half its audience, especially if it turns its male characters into the bad guys. I Feel Pretty avoids this by depicting its men as more enlightened than all too many of their real-life counterparts. As in 2015’s Trainwreck, Schumer’s love interest is a nice and decidedly un-macho guy, Ethan (Rory Scovel), and even the wealthy hunk Renee meets at her company’s HQ (Tom Hopper) is able to appreciate her for who she is.

The film also avoids creating female villains. Instead of turning its conventionally beautiful women into Renee’s adversaries, it shows that even they can find reasons to doubt themselves. Thus, cosmetics exec Avery (Michelle Williams) hates her baby-like voice, while toned model Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) worries that people question her intelligence.

In the process of attacking society’s obsession with perfection, I Feel Pretty hardly achieves perfection itself. When Renee’s new success threatens to drive a wedge between her and longtime friends Vivian and Jane (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps), it comes off as a cliché stolen from countless high school dramas. More damagingly, it could be argued that the film’s message of empowerment is achieved by discounting the real-world prejudices faced by those who fall short of physical ideals.

Still, the comedy inspires plenty of laughs, especially for those who appreciate Schumer’s raunchy sense of humor. At the same time, it may well inspire new hope and confidence in anyone who’s ever suffered from low self-esteem. As the film points out, that includes just about all of us.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

I Feel Pretty (rated PG-13) opens Friday (April 20) at theaters nationwide.

White high schoolers on a quest to hear black jazz icon

Flock of Four

By Richard Ades

La La Land was pelted with jokes galore for its alleged depiction of a white man who wanted to “save” jazz. Personally, I thought the attacks were unfair. The way I saw it, Ryan Gosling’s character was simply a white musician who idolized and was inspired by black jazz icons.

So why do I have such an uncomfortable feeling watching Flock of Four, the story of a white high school student who idolizes and is inspired by a black jazz icon? Maybe because the modest little film tries to tackle the issues of race and cultural appropriation head on, and it does it in a way that’s sometimes awkwardly self-conscious and embarrassingly naïve.

Directed and co-written by Gregory Caruso, Flock of Four partially makes up for this shortcoming by taking us on a pleasant journey through a pivotal era in Southern California’s musical history.

Joe Grover (Braeden Lemasters) is a Pasadena teen who learned jazz piano from his late father and now leads three classmates in a quartet that specializes in the genre even though their contemporaries prefer rock ’n’ roll. One night in 1959, Joe learns that Pope Dixon (Reg E. Cathey), a jazz veteran his father worshipped, is playing at a club on Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Joe has never been to Central Avenue, a fading jazz mecca in a scruffy black neighborhood, and he’s nervous about how safe or welcome he would be there. Still, he’s more afraid that this could be his last chance to hear the aging musician. Setting aside his fears—and dodging his protective older brother, Sam (Shane Harper)—he herds his bandmates into a cab and sets out for L.A.

This begins a long night of making and discussing music, meeting new friends and losing old friends, all while searching for a musician who always seems to be just out of reach.

After arriving at the club only to learn that Dixon has already left, Joe encounters Ava Moore (Coco James), a black singer with a friendly smile and a decidedly unfriendly brother, Clifford (Nadji Jeter). Following her gorgeous rendition of “Misty,” Joe and bass player Bud (Isaac Jay) introduce themselves and quickly learn that Clifford has little use for either them or for Dixon, whose upbeat music he equates with the long-ago era of demeaning minstrel shows.

More race-related discussions follow, culminating in a moment when Joe basically asks if someone like him, a white kid from Pasadena, has had enough pain in his life to play jazz. It seems like an odd question, considering how devoted he is to the genre he inherited from his dad. At any rate, the answer he receives is both reassuring and disappointing.

Beyond its awkward moments, Flock of Four is a satisfying tribute to the smoky jazz clubs that once graced the entertainment scene in L.A. and across the country. It may not be dramatically powerful, but it’s likably nostalgic and historically interesting. And, as a bonus, the music is great.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Flock of Four (unrated) opens Friday (April 13) at AMC Easton Town Center 30 in Columbus.