Little ferocity or elegance go on display in Savage Grace, a tale of decline and decadence in a wealthy American family set in New York, Paris, London and Spain's chic Costa Brava.
It stars Stephen Dillane as Brooks Baekeland, the socially recessive heir to a family fortune (his grandfather, a plastics pioneer, invented Bakelite), Julianne Moore as Barbara Daly Baekeland, his flamboyant wife, and Eddie Redmayne as Tony, their sadly inchoate son.
The famous book of the same name (by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson) started with (SPOILER ALERT!) the 26-year-old Tony killing his mother. But director Tom Kalin begins with the boy's birth, leaving audiences to wonder why they're watching a tale of unhappy people caught in not-so-tender traps. In their own hot-and-cold way, they send each other into meltdown.
The dialogue and scene-making are often witty and precise. When you hear Moore tell a small crowd at the Stork Club that her explorer-writer husband loves going up dirt roads, the screenwriter, Howard A. Rodman, hits on a tone of curdled high comedy, and Moore delivers it just right.
Moore knows how to be artificial and outre in a spellbinding way that fits a one-time would-be actress such as Barbara. And Rodman (Joe Gould's Secret) is a screenwriter who can be literary without becoming precious.
But Kalin fails to sustain a single tone with his direction or make his vision of the high life as revelatory as it is luxurious. As a director, he's just a tony interior decorator - the swell settings are more seductive than the characters.
The movie becomes a glossy yet clinical examination of a death-grip marriage, the calamities that occur when that grip is broken, and the trauma of the child caught in between.
Tony stays unformed partly because his parents can't see what they've done to him or accept that he's a homosexual. The perversity of his mother's behavior and the stupidity of his father's afflict this boy-man to the bitter end. But rarely has appalling, reckless behavior been so soporific as in Savage Grace.
Watch a preview of Savage Grace at baltimoresun.com/grace
(IFC) Starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne. Directed by Tom Kalin. Unrated. Time 97 minutes.