Dir: Alan Ball. Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, Lois Smith, Stephen Root. Cert TBC, 95 mins
Since winning the Oscar for American Beauty’s script in 2000, Alan Ball has been a force in television, having created, in Six Feet Under and True Blood, two of HBO’s most successful and taboo-busting series.
Now he’s back with Uncle Frank, a diverting comedy-drama which deals with forging acceptance in changing times. In spite of Paul Bettany’s brush with notoriety for some distasteful text exchanges made public during the Johnny Depp libel trial, he remains the marquee draw of this Amazon Original offering as Frank, a Nixon-era gay college professor not ready to come out to his family in South Carolina. Outfitting him with a wispy ’tache and natty taste in cardigans, the role is a pleasantly offbeat, intermittently touching use of his talents, even if the Southern twang comes and goes.
Not just for that reason, he’s the odd man out in this Bledsoe clan, a rambunctious household ruled over by a growling patriarch (Stephen Root) whose open hostility to his eldest son suggests that he, and he alone, has intuited the truth about Frank’s sexuality. The next person to find out is Frank’s bright, inquisitive niece, Beth (It’s Sophia Lillis), who, in 1973, enrols at New York University, the body of learning where Frank works.
While Frank has duped Beth’s unobservant parents (Judy Greer and Steve Zahn) into thinking he’s had a girlfriend for five years, Beth discovers he’s actually had a boyfriend – Wally – for 10, whom she sees when she gatecrashes a party for her uncle’s near and dear.
Ball does a nice job sketching Frank and Wally’s home life, and has gone to town in affectionately imagining the bohemian interior of their flat. But the film’s Manhattan interlude is curtailed when the phone rings with bad family news, meaning Frank and Beth must drop everything and go back for the old man’s funeral.
The film hopes to find a new groove on the road trip home. Somewhere along the way, though, it gets bogged down. It’s as if Ball didn’t have quite enough faith in the uncle-niece unit to get his story where it wanted to go. Not only is Bettany’s Frank continually troubled by flashbacks to his youthful days fooling around with a buddy, but it turns out this pair are not alone. Wally (Peter Macdissi) has hired another car and stalked them en route, even though Frank expressly forbade him from coming.
Ball’s divided attentions also give short shrift to Beth, for all the efforts of the truly promising Lillis. The other Bledsoes get about a scene apiece to indicate where they sit on the tolerance spectrum. Lois Smith, 90 and still looking like she's up to no good, has some tart moments as Frank’s grandma, and both Greer and the reliably excellent Zahn score well as essentially clueless relatives.
The standout, though, is Macdissi, who is warm and funny company throughout. His vulnerability as a Saudi immigrant, who’d be put to death back home as a gay man, is rather more moving than anything Frank is going through. Well-meaning in every direction, Ball’s picture is an over-large group hug waiting to happen, but it squeezes you amiably enough.
On Amazon Prime from Nov 25