Home at the End of the World, A: Cunningham’s Novel on Screen, Starring Colin Farrell and Sissy Spacek

Cast against Type, handsomer Colin Farrell works hard (perhaps too hard) in A Home at the End of the World in playing Bobby, a sensitive, sexually ambiguous youngster who becomes the center of a uniquely American mnage a trois.

It’s a calculated performance that may be remarkable for the actor’s daring to deviate from his more established screen image and macho bravado. But like the whole film, it’s not entirely convincing, and it leaves audiences at the end of the picture wanting more, wondering what went wrong with this potentially intriguing tale of a new kind of “family” that consists of a gay man, a bisexual, and the women between them.

Screenwriters are often blamed for distorting the original source material on which their script is based. However, in “Home at the End of the World”, the adaptation was done by the novelist himself, Michael Cunningham. For the sake of compression and brevity (the running time is barely 90 minutes), Cunningham has eliminated several subplots and major characters, and with them some of the novel’s richness. Spanning two decades, the film assumes the shape of a rather shallow portrait of a unique friendship, a catalogue of events and turning points depicted chronologically in brief vignettes.

The tale is divided into three timeframes. In the prelude, set in 1967, Bobby is a nine-year-old boy totally in awe of his older, hipper, and savvier brother, Carlton, who instructs him in matters of love and drugs. When Carlton dies traumatically in an accident, Bobby is at a loss. This is just the first of several major tragedies that will shape Bobby’s life, an issue that is beautifully evoked in the book but doesn’t come across in the film.

Cut to 1974 Cleveland, where Bobby befriends high school mate Jonathan. Having lost by now both his father and mother, he adopts Jonathan’s family as his own and moves in. In the segment’s most entertaining moment, Jonathan’s mother (the great Sissy Spacek) is talked into smoking a joint. At first reluctant and shocked by the notion, she takes to it rather quickly, and before long finds herself dancing a semi-erotic dance with Bobby, to Jonathan’s utter bewilderment. Meanwhile, Bobby and Jonathan begin fooling around, though it’s already clear that Jonathan is in love with Bobby and expects more from their intimate camaraderie.

The main part of the film takes place in 1982, in New York’s East Village, where Jonathan shares a flat with Clare (Robin Wright Penn), a free-spirited divorcee who now works as hat maker. Older and more experienced than the two men, she seduces Bobby, and her earlier plan to produce a baby with Jonathan is tossed out. Still in love with Bobby, a frustrated Jonathan begins to feel like a third wheel, and throws himself into casual sex, a series of one-night stands. In the script’s most conspicuous change, Cunningham eliminates completely the character of Jonathan’s lover, perhaps to illustrate more dramatically the impact of AIDS, which becomes a major subplot in the last reel.

It’s been a long time since we saw a candid portrait of American bohemian life, but the segments that detail the carefree, sex-drug-music lifestyle in the Village at the peak of that era, are forced and lack spontaneity. The trio’s idyllic existence in far-from-civilization Woodstock, where they move to raise Bobby and Claire’s baby, also lacks much resonance.

Cunningham was reported to have been pleased with David Hare’s script of the The Hours, his best book to date. But here, assuming the duties himself, Cunningham sacrifices his novel’s elegant, thoroughly descriptive prose for a presumably more concise narrative that is plagued by a schematic structure and dichotomies of characters. Notice the positioning of the film’s two women, both mother figures, Alice and Claire, as opposites: Alice is calm and restrained whereas Claire is spontaneous and loose.

Throughout the film, though, there are touching moments, as when Jonathan discovers his first sign of AIDS around his groin, and a worried Bobby tries to conceal his concern and offer consolation. The book is much more explicit about Bobby’s bisexuality; in the film, Bobby registers as a sexually ambiguous, accommodating man. Sex between the men in the book is reduced to a kissing scene that was shot, removed, and reinserted into the film.

The direction, like the screenplay, leaves much to be desired. A stage director (Thoroughly Modern Millie), neophyte Michael Mayer lacks the technical skills to provide smooth transitions from one timeframe to another. The editing feels chopped, as if the director was in a hurry to finish telling his story, and scenes were arbitrarily removed. More importantly, and this may be a function of the multi-setting saga, Mayer does not ground his characters in their physical and psychological reality, both of which keep changing, reflecting the shifting milieu and zeitgeist. Mayer’s staging is not theatrical, and he doesn’t encourage his cast to overact (as if often the case of theater directors turn filmmakers), but it lacks subtlety and nuance.

Of the three leads, Dallas Roberts as Jonathan, a man who had never overcome his first true love, acquits himself most honorably, and next to Spacek’s terrific character turn, gives the film’s most persuasive performance. Once he gets rid of a very bad wig, Farrell also improves, but as noted, the sweat shows in his effort to play a good-hearted, innocent hippie, somehow naively oblivious to Jonathan’s emotional needs. Sporadically, the more recognizable screen Farrell, with his devilish eye and cocky walk, sneak into his interpretation.