Udo Kier takes a tragi-comic victory lap in his storied career with “Swan Song,” an old man’s odyssey long walk into twilight, revisiting and even reliving past glories as he does.
In cinema buff shorthand, it’s David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” without a riding lawnmower, and in which the hero is anything but “straight.”
Mister Pat he still calls himself, uncomfortably ensconced in assisted living, not interacting with the other residents much at all, listening to his Judy Garland concert LP in private.
He’s got all the hallmarks of old age — compulsions he never outgrew, a hint of hoarding, a grim grip on old vices (More cigarettes) — but with a dash of style and a splash of bitchy rebellion. Back in the day, he was rust belted Sandusky, Ohio’s hairstyling hero.
His lone comfort these days is a long-silent, wheelchair-bound little old lady whom he sneaks smokes with, wordlessly, occasionally regarding her hair as if there’s something he could do with it, or much that he once did with that very hair in the past.
A surprise visitor– a lawyer he holds in light regard — interrupts this long day’s journey into night. A former client has died, the doyenne of Sandusky society (snort). Can he forget his grudge against her (Linda Evans of “Dynasty”) and do her hair one more time? You know, like this photo on her front page obituary in the local paper?
“Split ends, as well?“
Yes. He’s gay. And still quick. But no. He’s not interested.
“I haven’t pulled hair in years.”
The movie would be over if Pat didn’t find a reason to change his mind, so of course he does. Thus begins his journey — sneaking out, walking and accepting rides — into town and through his past. We hear of his great love, who died of AIDS. He walks the floorplan of his long-demolished old house and visits the salon he used to rule over, a queen with her court.
It’s an African American beauty parlor now, and the sassy, compassionate ladies there are one of many grace notes this Todd Stephens film finds in Mister Pat’s odyssey.
A running gag? Everything has changed, and Mister Pat, who doesn’t watch TV, doesn’t realize it. The haircare products that he’d need to work his magic were discontinued and banned as dangerous. Every business is different, even his beloved More cigarettes are a hard find these days.
Kier, a legend of European and American indie cinema (“Dogville,” “Soul Kitchen”), B-movies (“Halloween,” “Bloodrayne”) and TV (“The Kingdom”) takes this rare leading role and strolls through it like a man who never changed even as the world around him did.
Meeting up with a contemporary who still haunts a local park men’s room (Ira Hawkins), they marvel at the gay couples playing catch with their son or toting babies around that very park.
“I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore,” Mister Pat sighs.
And in a rare dramatic turn, Jennifer Coolidge (“American Pie,” “Two Broke Girls”) shows range, wit and meanness we never knew she had in her as a former protege who isn’t Mr. Pat’s favorite old acquaintance.
Shoplifting, a visit to the drag bar he used to haunt on weekends, an extraordinary moment of kindness and some tipsy epiphanies about what gay men of his generation have to reconcile themselves to in their dotage makes for a simple yet sweet and at times deeply moving day of “swanning” through scenic Sandusky.
And Kier makes a most companionable tour guide for us as the day gently, sadly and amusingly makes its way to the long night to come.
MPA Rating: unrated, profanity, smoking
Cast: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Ira Hawkins and Linda Evans
Credits: Scripted and directed by Todd Stephens. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:45