One of the most conspicuous sub-genres of indie drama in recent years is the film “Finally a Leading Actor”, in which a beloved supporting actor is finally given a leading role in order to show the full range of his charms and talents. Blythe Danner have theirs with “I’ll see you in my dreams” Sam Elliot followed with “The hero,” Harry Dean Stanton would have “Happy,” and now in “Swan song” it is Udo KierIt’s my turn.
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The German character actor plays Pat Pistenbarger (“a true icon” according to the opening titles) who was once the most fabulous man in Sandusky, Ohio, who did the city socialists’ hair during the day and partied at the city’s drag bar night. He’s had a longstanding love, friends, and successful salon, but a hard cut at the beginning of the film brings us into his far less glamorous reality. He wakes up in a hospital bed in an assisted living facility where the soundtrack is not disco music, but PA announcements like “Our special item of the day: fruit cocktail!” It’s a boring, suffocating existence, though he retains some of his evil spirit and occasionally rolls an almost comatose friend onto the stairs to smoke.
And then a lawyer in a sharp suit shows up to inform Pat that one of his former clients (Linda Evans) passed away. “Rita said in her will that you should do her hair and make-up for the funeral,” he said, but Pat is not interested. Many years ago there seemed to be some kind of feud and alienation, and he still holds a grudge. “Would you deny a great woman her dying wish?” the lawyer asks, and perhaps for this reason – or rather out of boredom and desperation – he decides to sneak out of the facility and get the job done.
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He wanders through the city and catches up with old friends and enemies, real and imagined. He’s something of a man from his time – once too cool for this small town, now hardly a slip in its history. “Nobody remembers me,” he desperately tells the boy who is pouring drinks at his old bar. “I used to play here. Every Saturday evening. “There is some humor in the culture war between him and his environment and the author / director Todd Stephens takes advantage of throwing a madman like Udo into this town and watching what happens.
Stephens wrote the landmark queer film “Edge of Seventeen” but his best known director credits are “Another Gay Movie” and its continuation, and you can feel him struggle with his tone and approach here. The pace is shaky – it takes a slack 105 minutes – and some of the filmmaking is pretty shaky, falling in awkward slow motion and blown light to create fantasy sequences and replicating Pat’s uncertain headspace, and throwing in unnecessary echo. Chamber recalls of the explanatory dialogue.
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But “Swan Song” is about its actors, and they shine. Jennifer Coolidge does some new and really interesting things as Pat’s protégé turned rival; The two spend a scene growling and glaring at each other. Years of resentment and bitterness bubble and boil over, but both resist the urge to gamble too much. And Kier is wonderful, of course, and enjoys the opportunity to act out all sorts of emotions (rather than the – usually severe malice – required of most of his youngest directors). He has a scene of mourning over a tombstone that is just overwhelming, but we can also see him cut loose at the drag show which is pure joy. Those two extremes and everything in between is about that face – that tough, defined face, a face that has seen some things and seems capable of any reaction. It’s a good face and kudos to “Swan Song” that we got to look at it for so long. [B-]
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