News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

September 13, 2013


Sept. 13--"Adore," from Australia, stars Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as best friends involved in sexual relationships with each other's studly surfer sons.

The movie is a drama, but "Saturday Night Live" viewers may be forgiven for assuming the inspiration to be "Motherlover," a 2009 comedy music video with the same premise.

"What time is it, dawg?" asked Andy Samberg in the video. "It's time for a switcheroo," replied best bud Justin Timberlake. In unison, they called out to each other: "We both love our moms, women with grown women needs. ... To me, you're like a brother, so be my mother lover."

In fact, "Adore" claims a much more noble -- Nobel, even -- pedigree. It is adapted from a 2003 novella titled "The Grandmothers" by Doris Lessing, a Nobel laureate in literature. The screenplay is by Christopher Hampton, Oscar-winner in 1989 for his script for "Dangerous Liaisons," adapted from his own play.

The director is Anne Fontaine, perhaps best known for 2009's attractive but tedious "Coco Before Chanel." "Adore" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival as "Two Mothers," but that nicely descriptive moniker unfortunately has been replaced by "Adore," a title as unhelpful as it is forgettable.

Whether composed of rock, sand, forest or flesh, the topography in "Adore" is impressive. Lil (Naomi Watts), a relatively young widow, and Roz (Robin Wright) are admirably fit, while their sons, young men in their late teens or early 20s, are "beautiful -- they're like young gods," to borrow Roz's proud description. Lil's son, Ian (Xavier Samuel), is a sculpted golden boy, while Roz's son, Tom (James Frecheville), is dark and chiseled. Perhaps because the director is a woman, the camera's gaze lingers most provocatively on the young men, who also provide most of the film's infrequent bits of nudity.

The boys, like their mothers, are best friends; the families live in paradise, in sprawling, adjacent homes along a sparkling beach. When Roz's husband (Ben Mendelsohn), a drama professor, leaves for a job in Sydney, a cozy and inebriated mother-son bonding party leads eventually to Timberlake's "switcheroo." We assume this unconventional arrangement won't end happily, but the affairs initially are presented as exciting, liberating. "The whole thing is unacceptable," Lil says, but she adds: "I can't remember being this happy."

Friends and co-workers in the film assume that Lil and Roz are lesbians, and the movie hints that the essentially if not literally incestuous relationships here may be a way for not just the mothers but also the sons to work out homosexual attractions to each other. The sons are rather callow and unrealized, more "eye candy" than personalities; this may be intentional. Fontaine is sympathetic to the boys, but the point of view belongs to the women.

"Adore" has received mostly harsh reviews, with critics labeling it "mommy porn" or comparing it to the late-night offerings on "Skinemax." Some reviews have been sexist as well as condescending; a New York Post writer wondered why "such strapping young men" would be so "desperate" as to "hook up" with "museum artifacts" like Wright and Watts. The knee-jerk dismissiveness suggests an embarrassment and discomfort with the subject matter -- an unwillingness to process this particular fiction by writers who on other days grapple with radioactive spiders, haunted houses and singing chipmunks.

As a glossy fantasy and a fraught provocation, "Adore" does suggest the ambitious, often European 1970s sex films of such directors as Radley Metzger, but without the sex or wicked sense of humor. The movie continues 20 grim minutes past what would have been a logical and satisfying end point, but at least those 20 minutes and the 80 that precede it are devoted to the idea that the lives of women can be as complicated and messy and interesting as those of men.

"Adore" is at the Malco Studio on the Square.


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