Maybe I'm too staunch a character to allow such alive and lovably eccentric ladies to be placed into the biopic mold. "There's nothing worse, I'm telling you."
The new Grey Gardens -- which aims to bring backstory to the high-society squalor of Big and Little Edie Beale -- feels partially inspired and partially stale. Not much different really from a piece of dry bread left to the raccoons in the Beales' attic. The attempts to fill in the gaps of Albert and David Maysles' seminal documentary are where the film finds its emotions forced and grey clouds hovering over such beautiful blossoms.
Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange both fare best in the documentary-era scenes, which seem to blend the devotion and disarray of these women most clearly. Barrymore gives one of the most complete performances of her career, and only feels like Drew Barrymore as old-age Drew Barrymore in a fraction of the scenes. She doesn't master Edie's mannerisms and dialect, but she comes impressively close enough and it's fun to watch her find the spirit of this toe-tappin' recluse. Jessica Lange too finds Big Edith best when she's confined to "present day," but one could argue she was aiming to do less imitation and more method acting. Do you think she really sat around singing in cat piss and ice cream cartons to prepare for this? Anything less would be below my own staunch standards. S-T-A-U-N-C-H.
The Beales' shared dreams and tattered remains do eventually translate, but only after too many orchestrating scenes of Edie trying to escape and those ever-painful "biopic moments" that seek to define a history rather than deliver it. It's no different than a film like Van Sant's recent Milk, which turns a radically emotional and personal documentary into a more calculating take on its characters - to the benefit of some perspective and to the loss of so much personality. Both are fine films by any standard, but too bound by structure to pull at my heart-strings. My issues with this revamp/retrospective seem to rest primarily (and maybe unfairly) with the problematic nature of its form, and less to do with its pleasurable performances, rich art direction, and any "in-joke" echoes of these infinitely fascinating women. It's definitely not a revolutionary costume, but it'll do.