'Mountain' has few peaks

Review - C

December 30, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Oscar Wilde called homosexuality "the love that dare not speak its name." The lead in the new gay Western love story, Brokeback Mountain, probably couldn't even pronounce it properly.

Heath Ledger, the star of this overlong and way-too-polite tale of forbidden passion on the range, gives a terribly emphatic performance as Ennis del Mar, the ranch-hand lover of small-time rodeo-man Jack Twist (the excellent Jake Gyllenhaal). Ledger plays Ennis with a curt yet guttural accent from the wide-open spaces of his mind. If he did say "homosexual," it would come out like a hacking cough.

Ledger is infinitely rounder and fuller in next week's period romantic comedy, Casanova. But that movie can't give him what this one can: the cachet of taking buddy love from hugs to kisses and beyond, and making it palatable to everyone. This must be the first movie where the ads list blurbs by geopolitical region, citing praise "From Coast to Coast ... To the South ... To the Heartland." The film's so determined to ingratiate, it will either sweep you away or send you into a deep, nonerotic sleep. The third alternative, hooting it off the screen as an instant camp classic, would be rude to crowds mopping away tears.

Ennis and Jack simply can't keep their hands off each other. They don't just rassle shirtless on Brokeback Mountain. They "stem the rose," as their scowling foreman, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), so colorfully and metaphorically puts one homosexual act of love.

What ensues is a gay Western version of that dinner-theater standby, Same Time, Next Year - without the humor and with bits of better fiction mixed in. Ennis and Jack start families with their respective wives (Michelle Williams as Alma and Anne Hathaway as Lureen), but reconnect after four years. Soon they're taking semiannual "fishing trips" and comparing notes on lives of quiet desperation. Jack talks about "a place of our own" like Lennie dreaming out loud to George in Of Mice and Men and asking if he can tend the rabbits.

Director Ang Lee and celebrated screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana set out to make an old-fashioned male weepie in the grand manner, plus sex. They expand Annie Proulx's blessedly compact short story - a mere 55 pages even in the rip-off paperback movie-tie-in edition - into a high-plains drifter of a movie. It's so lugubrious I had to wonder: Is Ang short for Angst?

Lee wants the heroes' longing to match the purple mountains' majesty above the fruited plains. What he connects with is an audience's longing to see a traditional romance with just a smidgen of flesh. The movie starts briskly, as Jack and Ennis arrive at foreman Aguirre's office in Signal, Wyo., to sign up for a summer herding sheep. Quaid, as usual, is the best thing in the picture as a no-nonsense manager who knows more than he lets on.

Once Aguirre assigns Ennis to tend camp and Jack to sleep with the sheep at night, the movie becomes pretty and obvious. Amid the vertiginous panoramas of the high country, the men go through the getting-to-know-you courtship of intimate disclosure - Ennis' parents fatally drove off a road, Jack's father was a rodeo man who never taught him any tricks. Before long, Jack eyes Ennis longingly if sheepishly. While Jack's out with the herd at night, he peers in the distance at the campfire, thinking of Ennis.

Lee wants to use gay characters to tell a universal story. One lover's fearlessness rouses l'amour fou; the other's pragmatic dread of consequences thwarts it. But whatever charge the movie has comes from its gay-ness. As Jack, Gyllenhaal may be too good at signaling his intentions. When Jack complains about commuting to the sheep herd, you know he's angling for a chance to get his crush into his bedroll.

Only under special circumstances like these - a gay romance set in Wyoming and Texas between 1963 and 1983 - can a filmmaker acknowledge that "No" can sometimes mean "Yes" in a charged sexual atmosphere. But Lee is such a damnably well-mannered director he never pushes his advantage. Although Ennis initially pulls away from Jack's advance, in a matter of milliseconds he's flipping Jack around like a pro. Then it's over. (I haven't seen such instant gratification since Mandingo 30 years ago.)

As long as they stay on Brokeback Mountain, their affair retains an inert fascination. When Ennis and Jack hammer away at each other with their fists, it's a parody of buddy-movie slugfests and a twist on the old Hollywood wisdom that a fight scene is a sex scene in disguise. But after they leave Brokeback, the movie becomes one sad, demeaning episode after another.

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