Over/Under: ‘Brokeback Mountain’ vs. ‘Weekend’

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Brokeback Mountain had the highest opening weekend per screen average in 2005, and it went from opening in only five theaters to playing wide all over the world by the end of its run. Then, when award season rolled around, it garnered all sorts of acclaim, getting awards for best picture from multiple outlets, Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, and it even got recognition from GLAAD for being the year’s most outstanding film. Pretty much it was embraced by everyone as being groundbreaking and important, and it saved Ang Lee’s butt after he pissed everyone off by making The Hulk.

Weekend came out just this last September, but you might not remember it because not many people ended up checking it out. By the time it left theaters it had only made a domestic gross of  $484,592. Ouch. And while this movie also got some love from GLAAD, it was ignored by all of the mainstream awards shows like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. A cultural phenomenon it wasn’t.

What do they have in common?

Both of these movies depict the blossoming of a romantic relationship between two men, and they explore a few different ways one can react to realizing that you’re into other dudes. Some are insistent on being open and honest about their orientations while others wish to remain private about their personal matters. Some are completely comfortable with their sexuality while others struggle with a sense of society-instilled self loathing. And while Brokeback Mountain depicts the coming together of a couple in an environment that is completely unfriendly toward homosexuality and Weekend takes place in a more open, contemporary place, they both give us a look at the quiet moments, where we watch two people just giddy to be in love. And isn’t that just precious?

Why is Brokeback Mountain overrated?

This movie is full of gorgeous landscape photography and its Gustavo Santaolalla-composed score is so beautiful that it could have played over scenes of Jake Gyllenhaal eating a bowl of Cheerios and it would have still been heartbreaking and melancholy. So it isn’t all bad. But I have to say, in general, I really don’t like it. First off, the casting is a huge problem. Having two actors as famous as Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play these characters was super distracting. The talk became more about how far they would go in being intimate with each other on screen than it was about the themes or crafting of the film. At every moment you’re aware that you’re watching two movie stars making big career moves and it makes it near impossible to treat their characters like real people. And both of these kids were so baby-faced when this movie came out that they look really ridiculous later on in the film when they’re asked to age a few decades. Greying temples, fright wigs, and ridiculous mustaches abound, making the third act play more like a comedy sketch than anything else. Also, what’s with Ledger playing his character like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade? This is the weird performance he got so much attention for?

The bad doesn’t stop with the casting though. The biggest problem I have with this one is that it has nothing to say, no story to tell, other than an attempt to tug on our heartstrings with manufactured melodrama. Who are these characters other than suppressed desires? What are they striving for when they don’t even want to work toward a life where they could openly live together? What this movie amounts to is over two hours of watching a couple of fish out of water flopping around on the ground and dying. There’s nothing at stake, everything is shrouded in doom from the beginning. So what are we supposed to get out of it other than schadenfreude? And don’t even get me started on the third act where things take a melodramatic life-and-death turn out of nowhere. That’s when I really started rolling my eyes. What Lee and his writers don’t seem to understand is that there is enough inherent drama in any relationship to make for an interesting movie. All of the end of the world teeth-gnashing and chest-pounding that happens here wasn’t necessary to make this a worthwhile story.

And you know what else wasn’t necessary? The film’s 134 minute runtime. A half hour in, and nobody had even done anything remotely gay and I was left asking myself if this was just going to be a really boring movie about camping. With none of the characters having any goals, and there being no end to their struggles in sight, the last hour crawled by pretty slowly. It doesn’t help that the pacing is all messed up either. This story, inexplicably, takes place over the course of several decades, so we have to deal with constant jumps forward in time. Every time something semi-important happens, instead of lingering in the aftermath of the characters’ actions and dealing fully with their consequences, we get whisked away years ahead in the timeline, wiping away any dramatic tension that might have been built. The scope of this thing always keeps us at arm’s length. For a movie that’s just about two people falling in love, why wasn’t this a much more intimate tale?

Why is Weekend underpraised?

For a start, the acting is really good, and the casting is way more appropriate than the casting in Brokeback. The lead actors, Tom Cullen and Chris New, are relative newcomers, so they don’t bring any baggage to their roles. You’re never painfully aware that these are two very famous, very straight people who are just pretending to be gay, so you can focus on who the characters are and what they’re going through rather than wondering how far they’re going to be willing to go in their love scenes, and what the public reaction is going to be. Are these actors really gay men? I have no idea, but most importantly, the question didn’t cross my mind once while I was watching the film. What matters is that they both do a great job. Cullen is so good at letting vulnerability play across his face that I’m sure he has a big future playing dramatic roles. And New really impressed me playing a character who has a bunch of excitement and, perhaps, anger bubbling beneath his surface. I could see him pulling off a whole gamut of roles in coming years.

There’s actually some substance to the dialogue here as well. Cullen and New’s characters talk about more than just, “Aw hell, I wish I wasn’t so gay,” miserable bullshit. Through the course of a single weekend these characters have conversations that cover the nature of friendships and the struggle to grow as a person when you’re stuck in a static situation. They cover universal stuff like infidelity, heartbreak, and the awkwardness of your first sexual experiences, as well as gay specific topics like coming out, gay marriage, and the challenges of being friends with straight folk. This is a movie about people rather than a movie about award shows.

There’s a lot of gay sex that happens in this movie, and I’ll be honest, it made me kind of uncomfortable. While I consider myself to be a person who ranks pretty low on the sliding scale of bigotry, I still can’t sit and watch two men get hot and heavy without cringing a little. I think that’s good though. The gay sex in Brokeback is so Hollywood and homogenized that it hardly registers. This movie puts you front and center, in the middle of the intimate moments, and it forces you to confront any lingering uncomfortable feelings you may have about gayness. As a straight person who has never had a really close one-on-one relationship with a gay man, this movie felt like a look at a way of life that I’m not very familiar with. And what good are movies if not to broaden the lens with which we look at the human condition? Weekend is the sort of moviegoing experience that can be most enriching. Sure, it’s nice to use cinema as escapism, but every once in a while shouldn’t we watch a movie that corners and confronts us? That’s the sort of thing that makes us grow as people.

Evening the odds.

When stuff starts going down in Brokeback Mountain the characters go straight into anal sex. I mean, right in; hard. The first time? And all of the sex seems to be so rooted in aggression. When these guys aren’t forcefully smashing their faces together and squeezing each other’s necks in the most painful make out sessions I’ve ever seen they’re wrestling around on the ground and slapping each other in the mouth. I’ve never met gay guys that so closely resemble professional wrestlers in real life, and while I’m sure some exist, why was watching these two guys hit each other with metaphoric steel chairs considered such a poignant moment for gay/straight relations? The guys from Weekend look and feel like gay guys I’ve really known. Their lives look like how a new, budding young gay person’s life will eventually look. So doesn’t that make Weekend a much more important film for everyone to see?

Luckily for you, reading more Over/Under won’t cause you tremendous heartbreak

Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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