Tuesday, February 6, 2024

All of Us Strangers: A Review (Review #1790)



Praise can be a curious thing. There is much praise for All of Us Strangers, a new film that is meant to touch on grief and loss. How it played to me, though, was a slow, dull and ultimately unintentionally hilarious films of 2023.

Screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) is struggling in more ways than one. He is struggling in that he is currently not working. He is also struggling emotionally. Living alone in London, he is still dealing with the grief of his parents' deaths when he was 12. 

That grief does not stop him from going to his boyhood home and seeing his parents, Dad (Jamie Bell) and Mum (Clair Foy), who look exactly as they did when they died. Adam lives alone, but to be fair his entire high-rise is empty save for one other person. That is Harry (Paul Mescal), who is open about his attraction to Adam. At first reluctant, Adam later changes his mind and a sexual and romantic relationship between them begins. 

Adam now has the courage to come out to his dead parents. Mum does not take it well initially, while Dad, who suspected as much, is more tolerant. Now Adam and Harry hit the clubs, and Adam has strange visions, culminating in Adam taking his paramour to see his long-dead parents. Eventually, Mum and Dad tell Adam that it is time to let them go. Adam does so, only to return to the high-rise and find Harry is himself dead. Now, Adam has exchanged the ghosts of his parents for the ghost of Harry.

As I wrote that, Justin Bieber's Ghost popped into my mind. After all, Adam will now settle for the ghost of Harry. It was at this point that I wanted to howl with laughter rather than tears. Think of it: Adam finally let go of the ghosts of his Mum and Dad but now has the ghost of Harry to love forever. I figure many have seen All of Us Strangers as this beautiful meditation on love and loss. I saw it as Adam being a total nutter. 

The entire "he exchanged ghosts" is simply too laughable for me to accept. This is a man who literally lives with ghosts. How am I the only one who does not find the setup hilarious more than heartbreaking?

Throughout All of Us Strangers, I thought that this would work better as a novel than as a film. I was not far off: All of Us Strangers is based on Taishi Yamata's novel Strangers. Writer/director Andrew Haigh's adaptation did not translate well for me. I think the flaws are that he may have wanted to be too devoted to these large themes of grief and regret to let the present-day scenario play out.

There is a somberness to All of Us Strangers that stifles the film. The heaviness prevents the film from coming to life, an ironic effect given the subject matter. Yes, I understand that it deals with death and pain. However, there is no joy even in the relationship between Adam and Harry. I did not sense any genuine romance between them. I did not even sense sexual attraction between them. The fact that Adam is old enough to be Harry's father does not help matters (Andrew Scott being older than Paul Mescal by nineteen years). 

Jaime Bell is ten years younger than Scott, but at least there is a logic to the age gap in that Dad was metaphorically frozen in time. All of Us Strangers now asks us to accept that Adam is potentially having sex with ghosts of younger men unless Harry died after Adam came back from his last visit to his parents. It is a bit unclear to me whether Harry died after Adam let his parents go or before. If after, it is a bit unclear if it was suicide or perhaps an accidental overdose. If before, then Adam's entire romantic and sexual relationship was a delusion in his mind.

It almost comes across as a strange blend of Patrick Swayze's Ghost and Bo Derek's Ghosts Can't Do It. Either way, it all looks strange to silly, with the efforts to wring great drama out of those scenarios making things more unintentionally amusing.

The best scenes in All of Us Strangers are when Adam is with one or both of his parents. It is a strange thing that Bell and Foy, despite playing dead people, are the most alive of our small cast. They are allowed to be fully-formed people, with conflicting emotions. When Scott is with either of them, the film improves. When Adam tells his Mum about his sexual orientation, she looks genuinely puzzled. "Homosexual? Since when? You don't look homosexual?". I can see it as Adam projecting, but it still works. Same when Bell's Dad talks about how Adam was bullied and suspected that Adam might be gay. 

As much praise as Scott and Mescal have received, I did not see them as a romantic pair, age gap notwithstanding. There is almost a dourness to their affair, one where neither is allowed to be human. Instead, their relationship matches the pseudo-artistry All of Us Strangers is so openly going for. Rather than be a living thing, it becomes ART! par excellence, making things stand out all the more. There is a certain stillness and distance here, as if Adam and Harry are a bit stiff with each other.

That, for me, is one of the film's greatest issues. It is a very quiet film, perhaps too quiet. It is one that focuses so much on the weighty themes that it does not allow for actual human interaction, at least among the living.

Again, my sense is that All of Us Strangers reads better than plays better. It is a film that drags, sometimes slips into tedium and/or parody, and keeps things too artsy for me.  


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