Almost a decade separates Michael Cunningham’s first novel, A Home at the End of the World from his bestselling The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The popular film of The Hours netted an Oscar for Nicole Kidman and a slew of additional nominations. It isn’t unusual to leverage the success of one film by dipping into earlier works by the same writer, often with disappointing results. But the new film of A Home at the End of the World, while not by any means in the same league with The Hours, is an intelligent work, a "small" film that is character-based and earns its warm and fuzzy feelings.
Cunningham himself wrote the screenplay, one that is a lot simpler in structure than The Hours. Essentially, it tells the story of Bobby Morrow (Colin Farrell) in a straightforward, chronological narrative that begins when he is a boy of nine in 1967. It’s the age of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and Bobby’s beloved older brother Carlton is enjoying all three. When Carlton dies in a freak accident, Bobby is crushed. It’s just the first of his losses as his mother dies when he is fifteen and his father a year later. The emotional neediness of his character has been firmly established.
Bobby moves in with the family of his best friend, Jonathan (Dallas Roberts), introduces Jonathan’s amenable mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), to marijuana, and explores adolescent sex with Jonathan. Alice also teaches him to bake, providing him with his future career. Jonathan moves to New York City, but Bobby stays with Alice and her husband till they decide to retire to Arizona.
Bobby moves to New York, sharing an apartment with Jonathan, now a fully out gay, and his delightfully eccentric roommate, Clare (Robin Wright Penn). Clare and Bobby become lovers, initially to the consternation of Jonathan, but Bobby’s ability to share his (nonsexual) love with Jonathan keeps this New Age family together. The film follows them forward as they build a life as a family and, in the end, as crucial decisions are made that grow out of the characters as they have been developed.
Much has been made over hottie Colin Farrell’s first attempt at something other than a macho role, but it’s been clear from past work (Tigerland, Minority Report) that this is a young actor of both skill and charisma. Cunningham’s script doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with, but director Michael Mayer helps Farrell portray a sympathetic character who rather mirrors the people around him. Penn (The Singing Detective, Unbreakable) doesn’t overplay the kookiness and finds the emotional subtleties in the role of Clare and Spacek (In the Bedroom, The Straight Story) continues her fine string of remarkably transparent performances.
Mayer, whose past experience has been in the theater, shows here that he knows how to direct actors. He refrains from gimmicky camera angles, cutting, and other splashy effects, wisely hewing to the intimate nature of the script. A soundtrack of golden oldies from the various decades covered by the chronology of the story is guaranteed to evoke memories from the those who were there and delighted toe-tapping from all.
A Home at the End of the World offers neither the complexity nor the depth of The Hours, but, with no overblown pretensions, it tells an engaging story about sympathetic folks finding their way in a never over-simplified world.