Judge George Hatch thinks this film couldn't have had a better title. Experience it for yourself if you so choose, but note the Judge's Freudian typo of the word "scrapt" for "script."
"Look at the pear behind them. They are a pair…and they're fruits! This subliminal stuff is all over the place."—Jackie Beat, from the commentary
I know a film is bad when I can't find a single line of dialogue worth quoting. So let me give you a few chapter titles instead: "Lesbians, Leopards, and Clowns," "Maladjusted Underachievers," "Stained Blue Couch," and "Diabetic Amputee." How's that for a line-up? Are you intrigued? Well, don't be. Grief is as messy as the blue couch that figures prominently in the story, and the title of this alleged comedy-drama is as misleading as the crass and tasteless amputee joke tacked on to the closing credits. Someone was desperate for a cheap five-and-dime laugh, and the film itself is empty-pocketed and cents-less.
Facts of the Case
Grief is about the trials and tribula…no, let's make that the trials and trials of the staff in the production office of a cheesy daytime TV show called The Love Judge. Jo (Jackie Beat/Kent Fuher, Flawless) is the mother hen to a group of behind-the-scenes technicians, each of whom has a problem.
Mark (Craig Chester, Kiss Me, Guido) is a scriptwriter who turns suicidal on the 19th of every month, the day his lover died from AIDS. Leslie (Illeana Douglas, Ghost World) is Jo's personal assistant, and she's shooting for her big break by turning in treatments for shows like "Stripper Nuns" and "Female Bodybuilding Circus Lesbians." Bill (Alexis Arquette, The Wedding Singer) could be the poster boy for a Gay Pride Day parade, but claims he's bisexual and has a girlfriend. That doesn't stop him from aggressively seducing both Mark and Jeremy (Carlton Wilborn, Dead Presidents), the big and burly black gofer for the crew. Paula (Lucy Gutteridge, Top Secret!) is the super-efficient production manager who has a crush on Mark; she makes her "advances" by requesting changes in his scripts. Duh! When Jo announces that she's marrying "Mee-loosh" and moving to Europe, she suggests to management that Mark and Paula take her place. Jo, you see, is a transvestite and wants to preserve "the yin and yang of the show."
My bad. There were, indeed, seven words I thought noteworthy of jotting down.
All the camping, cruising, and office politics in Grief are punctuated by a running gag about stains and unusual items found on Jo's expensive blue couch. To put it politely, they are crude leftovers from sexual encounters between various members of the staff. "Members…staff?" Am I getting too Freudian here? I don't think so, because there is no psychological or emotional depth to any of these characters. I'd like to say the actors did their best with the material they were given, but all of the performances look like they were cell-phoned in. I didn't feel any of Mark's "grief" at all. I suggest you watch Craig Chester in Swoon (1992), one of the pioneering films in the New Queer Cinema movement that started in the early 1990s. Chester played Nathan Leopold, in director Tom Kalin's stunningly original interpretation of the notorious 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case. Their homosexuality had to be suppressed in Compulsion (1959), but director Richard Fleischer cleverly managed to circumvent the Production Code with oblique and inferred references to their relationship. Over three decades later, and on a shoestring budget, Kalin was able to present his personal vision as a non-Hollywood independent, and Chester absolutely shines in an extremely complex performance. (Swoon, by the way, was released on DVD this past August, so check it out.) In Grief, however, Chester looks like he walked on and off the set, waiting for his minimum wage paycheck.
Illeana Douglas is one of the most underrated and overlooked actresses in film and television. She has the inherent talent of assuming the identity of the characters she plays so well that almost no one recognizes or remembers her from one role to the next. She was singled out with a "Guest Appearance" Emmy nomination for Six Feet Under, and she costarred with Jay Mohr in the brilliant and audacious TV show Action, which lasted only 16 episodes before it was deep-sixed by the network. (Hey, if a boring, short-lived sitcom like My Big Fat Greek Life can make it to DVD in less than two months, please give us a DVD of Action.) Jackie Beat is not at all Divine as Jo, and John Waters's superstar extraordinaire may be turning over in his grave. (We still miss you, Glen.)
There are a few (too many?) clips from "The Love Judge." The dialogue and acting is intentionally atrocious, but it does serve to make the rest of the film look less so. Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel (both from Eating Raoul) play attorneys, and several other indie vets make cameo appearances. Katherine Connella does a "star turn" as a witness who morphs from Beverly into another personality, Ginger. The problem is they both look and act the same; maybe that was supposed to be part of the joke. Checking Ms. Connella's credits, I'm going to have to track down Play Dead, summarized by one IMDb reviewer as "not your typical gay necrophilia movie." That line gave me more laughs than all the dialogue in Grief, combined.
Grief is director Richard Glatzer's first film, and it took him eight years to make a follow-up—or maybe that should be "a comeback"—with The Fluffer in 2001. This film, however, was actually co-directed with Wash Westmoreland, who has several documentaries to his credit, including Gay Republicans and the highly rated Totally Gay! Glatzer pointlessly breaks up the film with title cards for the days of the workweek. Most of the scenes could be re-edited willy-nilly and still have the same effect: total boredom. The director fails to develop interest in an already limp plot, or generate concern for any of the characters, including the grieving Mark.
I admit being partial to independent films of any genre, and take into consideration low budgets, tight filming schedules, on-location shoots, and relatively unknown actors. But Grief is one of the worst movies I've seen. The film clocks it in at mercifully short 82 minutes, but there are two commentaries that took another 164 minutes of my life. Neither gives any insight to the film; they are basically giggle-fests with director Glatzer and three of the actors—Illeana Douglas, Jackie Beat, and Craig Chester. They elbow-poke and laugh about the performances, the costumes and errors in continuity, et cetera. It all sounds like a 10-year retrospective apologia for having been involved with this project in the first place.
We do learn that Beatrice Manley, who makes a cameo in The Love Judge, was the first actress to portray Brecht's Mother Courage in America. I did some research and found that this innovative stage performer co-founded San Francisco Actor's Workshop, but in her later years, she was reduced to bit parts in such films as Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and made-for-TV fare like Mike Newell's Blood Feud (1983), about Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Ten years later, her appearance in Grief is a genuinely sad epitaph to a distinguished career.
Grief was screened in the early years of the Sundance Film Festival, and Glatzer admits that agents walked out during the opening credits because they felt, "They'd seen it all before." These guys were sharp. To be fair, I should point out that Grief won Audience and Best Feature Film Awards at two Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals, so perhaps they saw something I can't begin to fathom. Other "astute" and "enlightening" remarks fall into the category of the one I cited in The Charge: campy and irrelevant.
TLA Releasing's full-screen transfer is watchable but less than impressive. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sounds fine. As usual, TLA does not provide subtitles, but in this case, it doesn't really matter. The two extra commentaries are uncalled for; some trailers for TLA Releasing's better titles are also included.
Although the film was made during the same time period, Grief should in no way be included in the New Queer Cinema movement. In comparison to films like Todd Haynes's Poison (1991), John Greyson's Zero Patience (1993), Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991), and the aforementioned Swoon, Grief lacks the imagination and professionalism that these films achieved on extremely low budgets.
Glatzer's "scrapt" is so poorly conceived and written that the film has a "Hey, kids! Let's make a movie!" feel to it, but these actors have no talent for improvisation. Rent a few Andy Warhol / Paul Morrissey films such as Chelsea Girls (1966), Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Heat (1972) to see the difference for yourself.
Grief has only managed to secure a place on the lowest-level Limbo of independent filmmaking.
Guilty on all counts! There's no comedy or drama here at all. The only grief I feel is for anyone who chooses to watch this sorry excuse for cinematic entertainment.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Richard Glatzer and Actors Illeana Douglas and Jackie Beat
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