Critics often talk of “courageous” performances, historically those actors who play commit to giving their all to difficult characters — emotionally, by playing someone far beyond their experience, or physically — gaining weight, going bald, uglying up.
Oscar winner Julianne Moore goes the full Charlize “Monster” Theron in “Freeheld,” playing a haggard, high-mileage chain-smoking lesbian cop whose cancer and death benefits case became a major milepost in America’s shift toward legalizing gay marriage.
But there are other guys with guts, here. They play the villains, and not lip-smacking, charismatic evil geniuses or colorfully demented wackos. Dennis Boutsikaris, Kevin O’Rourke, Tom McGowan and William Sadler are county commissioners with homophobic, or at least unsympathetic tendencies, and Anthony DeSando is a fellow police detective ready to toss his longtime colleague under the legislative bus because she’s in love with and lives with a woman. They’re on the wrong side of history, more backward than hateful, cowardly than charismatic. That’s tricky to play.
“Freeheld” is a moving and inspiring account of that detective’s dying wish, a test case of almost a decade ago that made this reluctant, closeted cop an activist and an icon. It’s a film that flirts with stereotypes, and is somewhat derailed, or at least sidetracked, by one over-the-top performance that borders on caricature. But it works.
Freeholder is the name New Jersey gives its county commissioners. They’re the ones who would decide Lauren Hester’s case, and they had that choice because the state had already decreed that legally recognized domestic partnerships qualified for survivor benefits of state employees.
Laurel has been a loner, dedicated to the job, aloof enough to avoid the trap of sex with her fellow cops. When she sets out to “meet someone,” she crosses state lines. She plays volleyball. Badly. That’s where Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) meets her.
Moore is utterly believable as this weary, wary woman whose name and photo might be in the papers, but who keeps the rest of her life on lock down. She is full of “rules.” “Don’t ever answer my phone.” Closeted.
Page is the one who sells this May-October relationship, lets us feel the attraction and the much younger woman’s confidence in approaching the shy older one.
Michael Shannon gives a caring integrity to Dane, Laruel’s bluff, no-nonsense divorced partner, but just another guy she won’t share her secret with.
Director Peter Sollett — the wonderful “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” was his) and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner paint the relationships in broad, stereotypical strokes. Stacie wears a lot of flannel — a LOT. She’s a mechanic and owns a motorcycle. Anybody who knows what rhymes with “bike” will remember that gay cliche.
But “Freeheld” finds surer footing once the lovers have domestically partnered through the state, moved in together and Laurel gets sick. Up until then, they’ve only endured the odd grimace of tactlessness from strangers and officials, most of whom quickly regroup and adjust to this new legal reality. Gay bashing is harder to pull off with a woman armed trained by the state to pull a pistol.
Laurel’s simple request, that her partner collect her pension benefits in the event of her death, is dismissed by those villains mentioned before. Her fellow cops, save for Dane, don’t rally around her. But a local newspaper reporter (Adam LeFevre) sees the controversy and the hypocrisy.
And that’s when the activist arrives. Steve Carell lays on the “faaaabulous!” as this gay Jewish firebrand, and whatever somber sobriety “Freeheld” could claim flies out the window. He’s a risible stereotype, and to be fair, Carell was probably doing the production a huge favor, diving in after Zach Galifianakis had to drop out. That helped the film get made.
But he almost breaks the movie. Read any bad review attacking the film, and he’s the big sticking point. The earlier stereotypes fall by the wayside in the face of Carell’s onslaught.
Earnestness and good intentions wouldn’t have been enough to rescue the picture from Carell’s comic instincts. But the story, told in an Oscar winning documentary of the same name, carries us along and the other performances — Moore, Page and Shannon — move us.
And don’t forget the villains. In those character players mentioned above, America can see where we used to be, get a whiff of how unfair we might have been. Those guys let us see our mirror image ten years ago, even if a certain Pope and Kentucky county clerk cannot.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell
Credits: Directed by Peter Sollett, script by Ron Nyswaner, based on Cynthia Wade’s Oscar winning documentary short of the same title. A Summit release.
Running time: 1:43