Review by Sean Boelman
Hollywood pumps out plenty of feel-good dramedies, but what sets out the good ones from those that will fall into obscurity is a great performance. Paul Bettany fulfills that requirement in the LGBTQ+ road movie Uncle Frank, turning a pretty straightforward story into something endearing and charming.
The film follows a man and his niece who take a road trip to the family patriarch’s funeral joined by his lover, even though the rest of his family doesn’t know about his sexuality. Blending common tropes from both road trip and coming out movies, Alan Ball’s script is about as sentimental and cheesy as one can expect.
At about ninety-five minutes in length, there’s plenty of room to spare for this movie to go in more depth on some of its ideas, which is why it’s somewhat disappointing that it is so conventional. There are a few subplots that show the promise of delivering something legitimately challenging to the audience, only for its punches to be largely pulled by the time the resolution is met.
Furthermore, the film almost feels as if it came out about a decade too late. While there are definitely some people who need to learn compassion, the people who still need to hear that message are unlikely to watch something like this in the first place. Everyone else has moved past the need for shallowly uplifting stories about educating homophobes.
That said, the eponymous character is very sympathetic and likable, even if his arc is mostly predictable. There is a subplot in the movie involving him coming to terms with his sexuality in his adolescence, and this is arguably the most interesting and emotional portion of the film, but this portion is left underdeveloped in favor of more broad comedy and melodrama.
Bettany delivers what is likely a career-best turn as the eponymous character, and if it weren’t for such a competitive crop, he would be in conversation among the best performances of the year. He is able to bring so much emotion and humanity despite the relative stagnancy of the script.
Visually, the movie is solid but safe in an awards-bait type of way. Though the production design and costuming are both strong, periodizing the film nicely, there are a lot of other technical elements that are somewhat lacking. Some of the movie is oversaturated, giving it a weird glow, and the score is frequently overbearing.
Uncle Frank is a charming and very funny film bolstered by a phenomenal lead performance. In terms of conventional and mostly sanitized LGBTQ+ stories, it’s plenty charming enough to be worth a watch.
Uncle Frank screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.