Here we go again. Like a kind of “blah” relationship that you quit so many times because it’s kind of “blah” or because HBO cancels it, but that you then return to because your heart is inexplicably tied to it or because HBO decided to give it a last-hurrah movie that you have to review, I find myself back in the sleep-and-emotion-inducing clutches of Looking. Or, a slightly different brand of Looking — Looking: The Movie (out tomorrow, Saturday, July 23). The very thought of the ____ : The Movie title format, connotative of higher-budget extravagance, sounds almost oxymoronic when set to the obstinately chill-as-fuck series.
And it turns out that, unlike its series-to-film peers like Sex and the City 2 or, say, Spongebob , Looking’s transition to a feature-length format changed very little about it. The catch-22 here is that we can be thankful about this — it’s good that Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Augustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett) didn’t all end up on a resort in Abu Dhabi or in 3-D — while also thinking that it renders the movie something of a pointless exercise, especially when it also eschews the potential for good changes. But, since it’s so much like the series, that also means that it repeats the show’s tendency to, amidst all of its flaws and banalities, lay on moments of utter grace — the types of moments we know Haigh is wholly capable of from his film work, particularly 45 Years.
For better and for worse, the Looking movie overtly tries to create new conflicts — but only half-commits, because they’re actually just repetitions of conflicts and dynamics we’d already seen in the first two seasons. After two seasons of emotional tug-of-war between two men — the sleek, charismatic British video game mogul, Kevin (Russel Tovey) and the gruffly sincere Mexican American barber, Richie (Raúl Castillo) — for the insufferably indecisive protagonist, Patrick, it’d seemed like the final episode of Season 2 ended with a hint at a decision. Richie shippers came away from the series optimistic, with the finale ending up with Patrick back in his barber shop.
Haigh has always had a lovely penchant for insinuation, and so there was no grandiose reunion-sex, but it felt symbolically implied that they’d be together thereafter. But, come the Looking movie, we’re back to where we started: Patrick is coming back to San Francisco (for Augustín’s wedding to his Season 2 boyfriend, played by Daniel Franzese) after freaking out and moving to Denver, and it’s time to have a reunion with everyone — including the same two exes, with whom he may or may not rekindle a flame! (I suppose there is one striking difference here now: Kevin’s gone platinum blond. Do I smell a spinoff?)
Despite their utter redundancy, the scenes with his exes are some of the strongest in the movie. (A big problem for the show was that these two love interest characters, and Lauren Weedman’s deepened, de-stereotyping of “faghaggery” in Doris, have always been the most magnetic, while the three central friends are all somewhat insipid.) Castillo — as Richie, a man whose power comes from his coupling of humility and deep sense of comfort in his own skin, who’s emotionally connected but unostentatious about it — as usual manages to imbue even the act of simply walking down the street with an ex with the perfect amount of emotional weight. And Tovey’s Kevin — who became relatively unlikeable in Season 2 — displays arresting vulnerability here.
Haigh’s obvious strength as a writer and director thus far has been in exploring the intricacies of romance — from its fallacies to its ecstasies — and he continues here. Though the repetitiveness of Patrick’s tendencies (of which Patrick is self-deprecatingly aware) turn this into something of a rehashing of the first two seasons, it is in no way unrealistic for these lovers to come in and out of his life in such a way that it becomes tiresome both for audiences and said lovers. Even a digressive one-night-stand is handled beautifully, with Haigh depicting the sexual encounter graphically and sexily but unsensationally: how interesting to shine such an extended light on sex that’s neither polished nor fantastic nor clumsy nor horrible. It very honestly shows the common but oft-unseen phenomenon of two people getting to know each other while one is inside of the other. They chat and eat Chinese food after, and presumably never see each other again — and it’s self-contained, warm but not passionate, and the most honest kind of casual.
But while the the romances strike chords and are expertly crafted, the writing of the friendships is far broader, and is a reminder of one of the show’s weaknesses. Much of the dialogue from a long scene in a bar could have just been replaced with “banter banter banter” and it would have essentially sounded no more forced. We’re supposed to assume these are somewhat smart characters, and yet the best wordplay they can manage is a Carrie-Bradshaw-on-a-bad-day pun on rice balls. (“Would you stop eating my balls?” “I love your balls.”) And the generic words of encouragement they offer one another — like Patrick telling Dominic (who’s still devoting his time and energy to his artisanal chicken stand) that he should end his sexual drought by “get[ting his] hands on some plucked skin that doesn’t belong to a plucked chicken” feels like it was lifted from a friendship-writing template. It’s only when the realms of friendships and relationships collide that the film shows an astuteness about the former. A moment where Dominic and Patrick go from platonically in bed with one another to then not-platonically in bed with one another gorgeously handles the question of how we sometimes arbitrarily choose the roles people play in our lives — and how that arbitrariness can, with the passage of time, seem as absolute as a law of physics.
What makes the friendships so much less engaging than the relationships is a pretty standard “telling versus showing” problem. The nonchalantness with which the series handles gayness — as something that doesn’t see characters victimized — is wonderful, but it’s a shame that the show can’t be equally nonchalant in its dialogue. The relationships and the sex show characters being unabashedly gay by virtue of simply and openly being in same-sex relationships and having same-sex sex, and it’s great. But the fact that just about all conversation between friends becomes a volley of sex jokes or a discussion of gay marriage makes them all seem myopic, and reinforces that the show’s own refreshing, progressive raison d’être can also be limiting. The premise is simply: well-off, youngish (whitish) gay people existing and loving, free of oppression. This can be shown without them talking about it: if the power is that their gayness is so nonchalantly open, why does the thematically unvaried dialogue insist on portraying them as identities rather than full people? (“We’re just like Julianne Moore and Annette Benning in The Kids Are Alright,” Dom at one point jokes to Patrick.)
That cordial one-night-stand, or the class disparity in Patrick’s two love interests, or Patrick and Dom’s sudden reconsideration of their friendship as something sexually charged, or Augustín’s surprising capitulation to marriage speak so successfully to aspects of the contemporary gay mainstream that the dialogue needn’t try to hard. When the film focuses on friendship, it falls flat, and back in the kind of boredom that felt both refreshing as a precedent for gay representation and boring for the purposes of actual viewing. When the film mines subtlety in moments of intimacy and vulnerability, it’s stunning. Would you have expected anything else besides tedium and tenderness from Looking?