At the outset, Todd Haynes carries us on a crane over a Peyton Place-y town square (or square town) and into the glossy world of the 1950s "women's picture." It is mildly amazing how straight he plays it, or anyway how deadpan, although there are nonetheless as many laughs as there would be if a present-day audience were to sit and watch Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows, the two Douglas Sirk soapers that provide the most overt inspiration. One flagrant difference between this and those is the taboo subject matter that never could have seen the light of day on the old Universal Studios backlot: the struggles of a white-collar family man with his suppressed homosexuality ("I know it's a sickness, because it makes me feel despicable") and the possibility, if not the actuality, of a clandestine affair between a liberal-minded suburban housewife and her cultured "Negro" gardener. Somehow the director's deadpan does not hide every hint of his condescension, self-congratulation, and higher evolution. Off screen, which is to say in interviews and in the press notes, he will insist on how relevant and universal -- as distinct from Universal -- the material continues to be, but this might have been easier to swallow if he had updated the setting. When Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid his own homage to Sirk in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, he made the same point, and made it better, by taking an old soapy story (All That Heaven Allows cross-pollinated with Imitation of Life -- and clearly Haynes owes as much to Fassbinder as to Sirk) and then transplanting it into a thoroughly modern style and setting. Why could the point not just as well be made a slightly different, yet slightly more daring, way: by transporting an old story along with the old style into a modern setting? While it is well photographed (Ed Lachman), well designed (Mark Friedberg), well costumed (Sandy Powell), and well acted (Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert), the film has a dollhouse quality that stiffens it, flattens it, squeezes the life out of it. Perhaps there's significance in the fact that Haynes's name-making first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, was enacted entirely with Barbie dolls. What had seemed at the time a budgetary limitation might be a bigger limitation.
Length: 1 hour, 47 minutes