Tales of the city: ‘Beautiful Something’ reviewed

❉ Peccadillo Pictures’ latest release follows four gay men as they navigate life during one sublime night in Philadelphia.

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‘Beautiful Something’ is a perfect movie for Peccadillo Pictures to distribute. Directly addressed to a gay audience’s experience, it features multiple queer characters, a happy ending, and a gym-ready man taking his top off with the frequency of Christmas adverts in December (three different naked torsos in the first twenty minutes alone, dear reader). It seems to bear the influence of Armistead Maupin’s beloved ‘Tales of the City’ series, with four seemingly unrelated gay men drawn into erotic and cathartic encounters through the fickle manoeuvres of fate and a night of cruisy goings-on. In a relationship, out of one, looking for sex or stories, the four men experience a transformative evening.

Alienation is a theme. The movie opens with Brian (intense, handsome, shirtless) waking alone and anxious, trying to write but failing. Instead he takes his meagre savings on a last hurrah at a local bar, where he connects almost immediately with a wide-eyed stranger exploring his sexuality and readily agreeing to “hot man-on-man action”. Just as quickly, after the event, the two men disconnect and Brian is alone once more, rejected, isolated and still in a state of undress.

Brian Sheppard, who portrays this jittery poet, narrowly missed out on Best Performance in a Leading Role for the role at the Mumbai International Queer Festival. He received a Special Mention instead, but it’s hard to describe Brian as the movie’s lead in any sense. His story opens, interweaves and closes the narrative, but it’s a movie without a single central protagonist. Indeed, at last year’s Chicago Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the whole cast won ‘Best Actor’ award as an ensemble. Queer indeed!

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Brian Sheppard as Brian in ‘Beautiful Something’.

The movie is also concerned with making art, and muses. We learn that Brian’s one and only published book was written for Dan, his one great love – a man who now identifies as straight, coming close to dismissing the days (and nights) they spent together. Brian attempts reconciliation by visiting Dan via his bedroom window, a characteristically romantic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ approach to prospective partners that, whilst it suits a young and intense gay poet, understandably gets him nowhere with men.

Elsewhere in the city, we see handsome young actor Jim (Zack Ryan) getting to grips with his role as Romeo. Jim is in a longstanding (frequently topless) relationship with famous artist Drew (Colman Domingo) and while straight-guy Dan was nonplussed at being another man’s muse, Jim feels drained by it. He thinks Drew will throw him out as soon as he’s finished his next great artwork, a meaningfully headless metal torso. Jim plans on leaving before he experiences this humiliation.

Meanwhile, a somewhat mysterious bearded man in a white limousine cruises the streets looking for a young man to entertain in his mansion. Bob (John Lescault) describes himself as an agent to the stars, “known around the world”, and he does have a seemingly ‘deus ex machina’ role. Yet as the movie goes on to reveal, Bob is only too mortal – just like all of us.

The movie is full of echoes and correspondences – acting, performing, names and false names, muses, artists, “You soulless prick!” – and rather too often it feels a little too scripted. It’s not just Bob who appears out of nowhere and keeps his past a mystery: Brian, Jim and Drew also threaten to vanish into their own archetypes now and again. The most interesting scene for me was Jim trying to play straight for Bob, performance layered on top of performance. It’s a lingering conversation, the playfulness giving us surprising insights into their characters’ pasts and hopes. Is writer and director Joseph Graham drawing a comparison between this fleeting friendship and faltering relationships of the rest of the movie?

Bob sees through Jim’s almost immediately, probably when he notices how readily Jim will bare his pecs for his enigmatic benefactor, and gives him another generation’s perspective: “Your generation’s got it made. Holding hands in public? You take that for granted. Gay marriage! I would have married the man I loved – I’d be a widower now…”

As I write this, in the wake of America’s election of its new President and Vice-President, with the prospect of LGBTQ rights eroded over the next four years, a new atmosphere of hate in the offing, even same-sex marriage potentially in jeopardy, I wonder if this movie could read quite differently revisited in 2020. Will this new image of gay men, loving and loved, secure and optimistic, turn out to be as transitory as the ones preceding it? Whatever the case, movies like this may become ever more valuable, where the community is depicted as multi-racial, artistically fulfilled, capable of happy endings, and yes, attractive in the altogether.


❉ ‘Beautiful Something’ was released on DVD and Digital HD by Peccadillo Pictures on November 7 2016.

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