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The Sum Of Us

The Sum Of Us
reviewed by Greta Christina

Now, don't get me wrong. The Sum of Us really is a very nice movie. Based on the play by David Stevens (who also wrote the screenplay), it has very nice gay characters, and it says very nice things about gay people. The main character, Jeff Mitchell (Russell Crowe), is a nice gay man, who has a nice relationship with his nice straight father, Harry (Jack Thompson). They're sort of cantankerous, in a cute way; they squabble their little domestic squabbles, but are loving and supportive underneath it all. Dad tends to be nosy and meddlesome when it comes to his son's sexuality, but that's better than rejecting it, right? Besides, his meddling makes for cute and funny movie moments.

So here's my problem. The gay-movie-activist part of me, the part that encourages filmmakers to make movies with positive gay characters (and gripes when they don't), wants very much to say good, positive, encouraging things about this movie. "Nice filmmakers," she wants to say. "Good filmmakers. What a good gay movie you made. Here, have a yummy filmmaker treat."

On the other hand, the sarcastic, nitpicking, critical bitch part of me, the part that sits back in her movie seat with a jaded expression, hoping to be entertained but fully expecting not to be, isn't that crazy about it. She doesn't hate it or anything; in fact, she thinks it's sweet, good-natured and reasonably amusing. If it weren't a gay movie, she'd write up a one-paragraph review and stick it in Lukewarm Pleasantries. But since it is a gay movie, and a fairly major art-house release at that, the queer cheerleader and the cynical bitch have to get it together and come up with a serious, thoughtful, thorough review.


Okay. Let's start with the things I like. The Sum of Us is, in fact, a pretty likeable movie; and not just for its groovy positive role-models, either. The two main characters, Jeff and Harry Mitchell, are funny, quirky, eccentric and interesting. Their relationship is fun to watch, and has the added benefit of originality; it's very different from most movie depictions of father-son relationships. The coitus interruptus scene, when Jeff brings home Greg (John Polson), his trick/love interest, and Harry keeps popping in to wave a cheery hello and offer them drinks, is both sexy and hilarious. And the flashback sequences of Jeff's grandmother and her lesbian lover (Mitch Mathews and Julie Herbert) are lovely and touching. It's one subject that the queer cheerleader and the critical bitch agree on: The relationship between the two old women is simply marvelous.

But for the most part, the very things that the queer cheerleader is shaking her pom-poms over are making the cynical bitch roll her eyes back in her head. The role-model stuff is just a little too obvious, a little too heavy-handed. The movie's tendency to manipulate us into liking the gay characters and disliking the homophobic ones makes these characters a shade less interesting; and it definitely makes the plot a great deal more predictable.

The ending is a perfect example. It comes across as an object lesson in Why You Should Be Nice To Your Gay Kids. Be nice to your gay kids, the movie says, and they'll be nice to you and love you and take care of you when you're old and infirm. Be mean to them, and you'll be a lonely and bitter old codger, left behind all alone to starve on the ice floe.

It's a very frustrating turn of events. Jeff and Harry's relationship starts out as charming and idiosyncratic, if a bit precious. But in the third act, it turns into predictable, sentimental, movie-of-the-week mush. It's hard to tell whether the writer was trying to make a socio-political point or just couldn't figure out how to end the story. Either way, it simply doesn't work.

Again, please don't get me wrong. I'm very happy to see cute, funny movies with positive queer characters, and if a little pleasant diversion is all you're after, then I can recommend The Sum of Us with very little hesitation. But if you're looking for something more from a gay film, then I suggest you look elsewhere.

Copyright 1995 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Bay Times.

Note: Yes, that Russell Crowe. He made this movie in Australia before he did L.A. Confidential and became a big Hollywood guy.


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