Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 1, 2013)
As of September 2013, Steven Soderbergh claims that he now sits in the ranks of retired filmmakers. I put this in “I’ll believe it when I (don’t) see it” territory, as I find it hard to accept that Soderbergh – only 50 and a workaholic who often put out two movies a year – will truly leave the business.
If he does, however, he finishes on an unusual note with Behind the Candelabra, a made-for-cable biopic about flamboyant pianist Liberace. The movie doesn’t follow the musician’s whole life, however, as it focuses on a specific period and relationship. We open in 1977 and meet 17-year-old Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young man from a troubled background who lives in a foster home and works as an animal wrangler in the movies.
With his new casual boyfriend Bob Black (Scott Bakula), Scott takes a fateful trip to Las Vegas, where they see Liberace (Michael Douglas) perform. Bob knows Liberace and introduces Scott to the musician after the show. The pair hit it off immediately and before long, Scott becomes Liberace’s personal assistant and lover. We follow their lives together through various ups and downs.
Some might prefer a Candelabra that offers a broader look at Liberace, but I’m happy with the focus it provides. Life-spanning biopics tend to come across as awfully compromised; they try to cram in so much during limited screentime that they feel like “greatest hits” and little more.
When done right, a project that concentrates on a certain era can offer both depth and breadth. We get the introspection that comes from the restricted scope, but we also find enough character material to let us “fill in the dots” and understand what fleshed out the participants’ lives.
So at its core, I like the focus found in Candelabra, but does that mean I approve of the film as a whole? Ehh – the movie has its moments and mostly entertains, but it comes with some significant flaws.
Of course, the salacious elements earned the movie its biggest headlines, especially given the casting involved. The sight of “A”-level male actors getting all hoochy-smoochy with each other certainly did a lot to bring attention to the film, though I don’t think it handles those elements in a gratuitous manner. Could Candleabra exist without the gay sex? Sure, but it’d feel false and sanitized. The movie doesn’t shy away from those scenes, but it doesn’t overindulge in them either.
That said, I find Candelabra to offer an unpleasant experience because I’m not particularly sure what purpose it serves. Indeed, it feels borderline cruel at times, as it paints a rather unflattering picture of Liberace. I guess we see a good side of the musician at times, but those elements become overwhelmed by his vanity, ego and self-centeredness.
The movie’s Liberace exists in a world with himself firmly at the center. Everything he does brings himself attention, and he wants all others to focus on his greatness. Granted, he does so with a bit of self-deprecating humor, but the point remains clear, and other people exist solely for his own gratification.
Is this a true portrait of Liberace? I have no idea, but given that it comes based on Thorson’s own accounts, I suspect a strong bias at work – especially since the original book came out in 1988, back when Thorson’s wounds would’ve remained fresh.
Perhaps the filmmakers attempted to work from additional sources as well, but if so, I don’t get that sense. Instead, Thorson remains the focus as the poor troubled youth corrupted by the charismatic older man. Do we ever get the sense that Thorson is anything but a victim? Not really; we watch him descend into a haze of drugs and bitterness solely due to Liberace’s demands and desires.
If the film brought any real sense of insight to the characters, I might not mind the ugly portrayal of Liberace, but that doesn’t occur. Thorson becomes the focal point much of the time, and that’s a problem, as he begins and ends as a big, fat zero. We don’t care about him at the start and that never changes; he may be the nominal “hero” but he’s virtually anonymous.
It doesn’t help that the movie miscasts Damon. Now 42, we’re supposed to believe him as a character who starts at 17 and spends most of the movie as a teenager or early 20-something.
Seriously? Sure, Damon looks young for his age, and the movie slathers on makeup and CGI to “freshen” him, but it just doesn’t work and it creates confusion. When the film opens, we see Scott in foster care – and immediately wonder why some old guy is still a ward of the state. Damon can’t pass for 27, much less 17, and I can’t suspend disbelief to accept him in the role. I like Damon and find him to be talented, but he was a bad choice for the part.
Douglas does much better as Liberace – indeed, he almost overcomes the script’s determined attempts to make the character look bad. Douglas takes a one-dimensional role and adds some humanity while he avoids the pitfalls that come with any take on Liberace. Douglas delivers the requisite campiness that goes with the part but he doesn’t go over the top; he creates a pretty full personality, not a caricature.
Too bad he does so in a flick that feels way too Boogie Nights for my liking. Did Soderbergh consciously borrow from that 1997 classic? Perhaps not, but it sure feels that way. Thorson comes across as a cut-rate Dirk Diggler, and he follows a similar path; heck, like Dirk, he even wants to be a musician!
I expect more from Soderbergh than this. Does Candelabra entertain? Often, though it fizzles as it progresses. The first half offers the most fun, especially during overtly comedic scenes like those with a plastic surgeon; Rob Lowe delivers a delicious performance as the sleazy doctor, and amusement results.
However, between the movie’s focus on boring old Scott and its apparent desire to taint Liberace’s legacy, Candelabra becomes a disappointment. The film lacks insights and often feels like little more than a gratuitous exploration of sex, drugs and piano music.