Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Loverboy (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 26, 2006

Directed by Kevin Bacon/screenplay by Hannah Shakespeare, based on a novel by Victoria Redel/starring Kyra Sedgwick, Matt Dillon, Campbell Scott, Oliver Platt, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon/Screen Media Films

An extremely overprotective mother’s obsession with raising the perfect child eventually leads to tragedy.

Here’s a note to all movie critics: please stop calling films “Fatal Attraction for our time” or “for a new generation”. Just stop it, please. Especially when the film in question is nothing like Fatal Attraction in any way, shape or form. Enough already. Practically every damn screener they send me anymore has that quote slapped on it, even if it’s a three-hour Iranian goat-herder film. OK, I never get those, but if I did, that quote would probably be there.

Anyway, at first glance, Loverboy would seem like something tailor-made for the Lifetime network. Even the photo of Sedgwick on the cover practically screams, “this is a movie about a repressed Southern housewife who finally discovers her inner sensuality with the help of a handsome drifter” or some such nonsense. Thankfully, this is not the case. Nor is it a remake of that late-‘80’s movie where Patrick Dempsey screwed a bunch of housewives. It seemed unlikely at the time.

No, this Loverboy is a disquieting little indie drama about the dangers of bad parenting. Finally, a movie about something real! Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of indies that have been overhyped to the gills but ultimately disappointed me (Brick, Hard Candy) due to their lack of verisimilitude. They’re hip, they’re ironic, they’re chock-full of style, and I didn’t believe either of them for a second. If there really is such a thing as being “too smart for your own good”, these films personify that concept. They’re not so much clever movies as they are movies about how clever the filmmakers think they are. They come off more like “calling cards” to advance the writers’ and directors’ careers in Hollywood than honest, genuine films that explore the subject matter they’re supposedly about.

Kevin Bacon hardly needs a “calling card” at this point in his career. Even though this is his first feature film as director (his only previous directing credit being a 1996 TV-movie called Losing Grace, which I have not seen), he’s one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood (hence the “Six Degrees” game). Therefore, he has no reason to spend his time directing a little low-budget movie unless it’s something he really believes in. Loverboy has all the earmarks of a passion project, a film starring his wife and a bunch of their famous actor friends all working for virtually nothing (one imagines). If one were to be unkind, one could call it a vanity project, but strangely enough it’s the most “real” movie I’ve seen in a while. Unlike those films mentioned above, it actually seems to be taking place in the world we live in, not some screenwriter’s fantasy.

Our protagonist Emily (Sedgwick) is a curious and intriguing one. When we first meet her, she’s on a mission to conceive the “perfect child” by having sex with a ton of different men who all have different attributes she finds admirable. This is a rather comical and lighthearted set-up that provides ample opportunity for Sedgwick to appear in various states of undress (thank you, thank you very much). I’m no biology expert, but I don’t think the “more the merrier” approach to procreation actually works that way – otherwise some women would be having some pretty funky children. But Sedgwick is one of those rare actresses who only seem to get hotter as they get older, so I won’t quibble with any excuse to show off her body.

She finally gets knocked up this way, but loses the baby. But a chance encounter with a stranger (Scott) in a hotel room leads Emily to conceive again, and this time her wish is finally granted. She gives birth to a son named Paul, who she insists on calling “Loverboy”, which is already oddly inappropriate. As an infant, Paul makes her deliriously happy, and she purposely sets out to shelter him from the outside world, which Emily views as full of mediocrity and pain. She believes that keeping him all to herself will cultivate his intelligence and self-esteem. But as Paul gets older and other people begin to intrude on them, she finds it more and more difficult to protect him from outside influences. What’s more, Paul seems to actually want more interaction with others – he naturally wants to be a normal kid, go to school, make friends, etc. When Emily finally relents to this, her obsession with keeping him unspoiled reaches bizarre and potentially dangerous heights.

Where many movies show the consequences of being a reckless and/or uncaring parent on a child, Loverboy takes the opposite tack and reveals the dangers of caring too much. Emily is far too controlling, needy and self-absorbed to possibly raise a child in a healthy manner. Not only does Paul consume her entire life, she expects him to reciprocate, to the exclusion of all others. To put it bluntly, the woman just can’t let go. You get the feeling she actually wants to smother the kid, figuratively if not literally.

Flashbacks to Emily’s own childhood give us some insight on her condition. It seems she was raised by parents (played by Bacon and Tomei) who were so deeply in love with each other, they had no room for her in the equation. Neither of them are intellectual giants, so they don’t know how to respond to her curiosity and precociousness. Sending her to a public school system that celebrates mediocrity and suppresses individuality only causes her more pain, and she is determined that her child won’t suffer the same indignities. She models herself after the mother she wishes she had, Mrs. Harker (an uncredited cameo by Sandra Bullock), who takes an interest in young Emily despite apparently being a bit of a lush, and a rather smug one at that. Odd choice for a role model, but Emily will apparently take what she can get.

It’s not that Emily is a complete whackjob though – if anything, I’d say she has some completely valid points about the mediocrity of the school system and society’s celebration of the lowest common denominator. No argument here. But she swings too far in the other direction, stifling any sense of life Paul might have outside of her gaze. Her basic concerns may be legitimate – it’s the way she handles them that are completely off the wall.

Bacon is smart and careful enough not to demonize her, though. At first, Emily merely seems like she’s looking out for her child’s best interests. It’s only gradually that her behavior seems more inappropriate and even sinister, until we eventually come to the realization that she’s completely unhinged. This isn’t one of those movies that tips its hand too soon and becomes overwrought, like the camp classic Mommie Dearest. Nor does Emily start knocking people off left and right to keep them out of her son’s life. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s more a subtle shift in tone – we’re just waiting for her to snap by a certain point, and wondering what horrible thing she will do when she finally does.

Sedgwick plays all of this just right, always keeping Emily just this side of monstrous. She seems like a person who could actually exist, which of course makes her actions all the more discomfiting and ultimately frightening. We may not agree with her, and we may not like her. But we believe her. That’s what makes her scarier than any masked horror-movie maniac – she’s merely a flawed human being with a smaller person’s life in her hands. Child actor Dominic Scott Kay is her equal, as a kid fallen under his mother’s spell but also yearning to break away and have a life of his own. Bacon and Tomei seem a bit cartoonish by comparison, but it’s by design; we see them only through young Emily’s eyes, after all, and aren’t all parents cartoon monstrosities to their children? Dillon does a good turn as a nice guy who develops an interest in both mother and child, and Platt is nicely toned down as a school official bewildered by Emily’s complaints. But this is Sedgwick’s show all the way, and she makes the most of it, giving the kind of complex and nuanced performance that might earn her an Oscar nomination in a higher-profile film.

The ending may seem like a cop-out to some, like the filmmakers were afraid to deliver the final blow to the audience. I don’t know if I agree with that. I prefer to think that it ends on a note of well-earned hope rather than despair. The implications of Emily’s actions are still disturbing and thought-provoking, and the power of Sedgwick’s powerhouse performance still comes through. Bacon definitely has an eye, and he’s got a worthy subject to train it on. If Loverboy is a love letter to his wife’s beauty and talent, it’s definitely one worth reading.

The only extra on the disc is a Director’s Commentary from Bacon, which is adequately interesting as far as it goes. I would’ve liked to see more though, at the very least a short behind-the-scenes piece or a short interview with Bacon and/or Sedgwick about what inspired them to make the movie. This movie deserved at least that much, and it’s worth at least a rental to discover an unheralded gem.

***1/2 9/26/06

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