There are some movies that are inexplicably popular with critics but utterly fail with the public. This problem is compounded each Oscar season when there is at least one Best Picture nominee that actual audiences stay away from in droves.
This year, there are two pretentious stinkers in the field of nine top-prize contenders for the Academy Awards, one being “Phantom Thread” (which I gave a good spanking last week). The other, even worse, film is “Call Me By Your Name,” which focuses on the utterly creepy relationship between a gawky, rail-thin 17-year-old French boy named Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and a 24-year-old American hunk named Oliver (Armie Hammer) over the course of a mid-’80s summer.
“Call Me” has been given a rapturous 96 percent approval by the nation’s critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but I deem it rotten on several levels. There’s no way to convey why I dislike the film so much without giving out major spoilers later in this review, so be warned if you’re really dying to see this 132-minute, morally bankrupt snoozefest. Everyone else can thank me for saving them at least 10 bucks and over two hours of their lives.
Before I really dig in, I also need to point out that none of my criticisms of this film’s debased relationship are rooted in homophobia. I chose the gay-centered “Moonlight” as my second-best film of 2017 and predicted correctly that it would win Best Picture. The problem here is that “Call Me” is a slick excuse for normalizing pedophilia.
Let’s start with the paper-thin premise, in which Elio is a teenage boy hanging out for the summer with his architect father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his mother as his dad excavates ancient ruins, with Oliver as his latest assistant. Elio is at first seen being quite the budding ladies’ man at the start, and at first flinches when Oliver starts offering him unrequested massages while they’re both playing volleyball shirtless.
Oliver keeps paying an inordinate amount of attention to Elio, and the two share a bathroom between two adjoining bedrooms. This quickly gives Elio a chance to admire the chiseled Oliver, and as the American doles out boringly arcane details of the etymology of words, the young French lad finds himself in full-on crush mode.
The two spend most of the rest of the movie first resisting their attraction, then engaging in all manner of romantic and (mostly offscreen) sexual escapades — and a whole lot of aimless bike riding through the endless countryside. But no true conflict ever arises, as Elio’s parents are not only fine with a 24-year-old stranger having sex with their minor son, but actively encourage the relationship.
Of course, there are plenty of gay people who discover their true same-sex attractions after starting out in straight relationships, largely because religious and social pressures initially cause them to hide their orientation. But in “Call Me,” that attraction is disturbing and unbalanced by any objective measure, as at no point do these two lovers feel like equals. The problem lies in the casting, as Hammer looks every bit of his actual 31 years, and the 24-year-old Chalamet comes off like a 12-year-old here.
Elio never once looks like anything but a child, despite the fact that the film’s logic and lack of sexual ethics has him deviously engaging in sex with his girlfriend on the same day he’s already planning to hook up with Oliver at midnight. And Oliver is a sick, morally bankrupt guy who — in the film’s most repellent scene, yet one which its IMDB fans strangely single out as hot — nearly chooses to eat a peach Elio has just masturbated into (in the book, he actually does eat it). “American Pie” has nothing on this movie.
It’s hard to sympathize with someone who uses both genders as sex objects for his pleasure, and it’s even less sympathetic to see a guy like Oliver leading him into the affair only to — and this is a major SPOILER ALERT – reveal nonchalantly in a film-ending phone call that he’s had a female fiancé back in the US all along.
I must continue with the SPOILER ALERT to make my point about how utterly corrupt and inhumane this film is. That phone call comes after Oliver has spent six weeks leading a very confused teenager into a sexual relationship by presenting an idealized romantic image of himself only to drop an emotional nuclear bomb on Elio’s emotions.
In the novel on which “Call Me” is based, the story resolves years later with the two men meeting and Elio being able to look back on the summer with a mature perspective. However, the film ends with Elio’s moronic and morally absent parents congratulating Oliver on his engagement while leaving us to stare Elio in the face in extreme close-up as he weeps profusely during the closing credits as an obscure ’80s pop song plays full blast.
About a minute into the crying jag, a slight smirk of romantic remembrance starts to cross his face, but the overall effect is nonetheless shallow and exploitative. Chalamet knows how to cry well, but one can surmise that Elio will be just fine and onto screwing whatever person he finds attractive, even the next day — for that is what has already been revealed within his amoral core, and what he has learned from his older lover.
“Call Me By Your Name”: F
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
A laughably pretentious tale of a top British fashion designer ridiculously named Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and his extremely slow-building and utterly implausible relationship with a female underling (Vicky Krieps) amid 1950s-era repression. The film is being sold as a gift to viewers since it’s Day-Lewis’ final film, but viewers will want to take it back. Grade: D
Stars: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Length: 121 minutes
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
This darkly comic biopic of disgraced US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding explores both funny and harrowingly sad aspects of her childhood into adulthood, with Janney providing a wicked turn as Tonya’s abusive and foul-mouthed mother. A powerhouse movie that is turning into a huge sleeper hit and a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars. Grade: A
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro’s latest epic fantasy leads the Oscar race with 13 well-deserved nominations. Sally Hawkins delivers a uniquely silent performance as a meek mute woman who works as a janitor in an early-1960s government facility and falls for the mysterious creature that scientists are studying and about to kill. Achingly romantic, beautifully shot, and downright exciting, this is as close to perfect as movies get. Grade: A
Stars: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
The story behind the decision by the Washington Post to print the infamous Pentagon Papers, a free-press battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, is recounted in occasionally rousing but often boring fashion in a movie that feels like homework more than entertainment. Grade: B
THE LAST SHOWMAN
Stars: Hugh Jackman, MIchelle Williams,
Length: 105 minutes
Directed by: Michael Gracey
Hugh Jackman uses his considerable charisma as he sings, dances and gives a terrific performance as legendary showman P.T. Barnum. The composers of “La La Land” deliver an impressive score blending hip hop and classical to create vibrant songs that drive a richly entertaining story. Efron and Williams are outstanding as well in the year’s best musical. Grade: A