With recognizable actors aplenty and a star director, Behind the Candelabra has the ingredients to be quality filmmaking. But it fails.
Start with casting Matt Damon, a terrific actor, one capable of generating emotion, but also one twenty years too old for the part. When the real life Scott Thorsen (Damon) met Liberace (Michael Douglas), he was seventeen years old, a fact that is vitally important to understanding his decisions. Also a fact Director Steven Soderbergh’s movie fails to capture, by virtue of casting.
Let me be clear: Matt Damon is not bad in this film. Quite the opposite, in fact. His performance is the best part of the movie; the problem is that Damon can’t overcome being miscast to play a teenager. He doesn’t have the proper youthful look, no matter the makeup and prosthetics Soderbergh’s crew uses to disguise his age.
Michael Douglas has received rave reviews for his portrayal of Wladziu Valentino Liberace, a man about whom I know almost nothing. I cannot say whether or not Douglas’ portrayal captures Liberace’s mannerisms, voice and behavior, but I can say it borders on cliche.
So does much of Behind the Candelabra’s dialogue, at least for the first thirty-five minutes. Almost every early scene between Liberace and Thorsen includes the former soliloquizing about his past, thereby delivering necessary biographical information, but also making the picture’s first third exposition heavy, so heavy that identifying with the characters proves difficult.
As the plot advances, the dialogue is less expositional, but it isn’t much better. Conflicts between Thorsen and Liberace are unnaturally shortened, meaning their explosive fights end before reaching resolution. It seems Soderbergh doesn’t have Richard Linklater’s or Abdel Kechiche’s courage, the courage to force immersion into genuine relationship strife. Instead, Soderbergh and script writer Richard LaGravenese hint at conflict and then cut away before the actors can finish it.
Similarly, Behind the Candelabra’s final act is rushed.We have only a vague sense of the two men’s legal and tabloid battle.
If it isn’t clear, I have very little praise for Behind the Candelabra. I can say the costumes, set designs and cinematography all show Liberace’s penchant for over-indulgence.
So does Douglas’ performance, I suppose.
Soderbergh and LaGravenese wisely focus on a single period of Liberace’s life, instead of trying to show all of it at once.
They also draw interesting parallel between Billy (Cheyenne Jackson) and Scott, when each eventually faces Liberace’s new lover.
In the end, though, the movie’s few merits are not enough to make it worth a two hour time investment. Behind the Candelabra simply isn’t good.