31 January 2000 | jimu63
Two-thirds of a good film
Like many three-part anthology movies, "Common Ground" is a definite mixed bag. An examination of changing attitudes toward gay people in the past half-century or so in a small Connecticut town, it was written by three prominent gay playwrites--Paula Vogel, Terrence McNally and Harvey Fierstein--and performed by a large cast of familiar actors obviously attracted by the weight and "importance" of the project.
Of the three stories, Vogel's opening segment is by far the best. Set is 1954, it follows a young Naval woman home to Homer, Connecticut after she is given a dishonorable discharge due to "sexual deviancy." Not surprisingly, her return home is not a happy one as news of her "crime" spreads and the townspeople--including her mother--turn on her in a disgusting (but understandable considering the ignorance of the era) display of intolerance. Rising actress Brittany Murphy (so good in very different roles in "Girl, Interrupted," TV's "David and Lisa," and "Clueless") is wonderful as the woman, displaying a touching range of emotions from wonder and excitement when she first visits a gay bar, to sadness and shame as the same townspeople who have known her all her life and at first welcome her return make it clear she is no longer welcome in their midst. She is ably supported by Margot Kidder (looking like she's aged forty years in the past twenty--a far cry from Lois Lane) as the mother and Helen Shaver as a sympathetic restaurant owner.
The second segment is also strong but not as well developed. Written by McNally and set in 1974, it centers on the harassment and hostility directed by bullies toward a gay high school student just emerging from the closet. Jonathan Taylor Thomas is surprisingly strong in this segment as the gay student--a far cry from his previous performances which quite frankly have never impressed me much. Steven Weber costars as a closeted gay teacher who refuses to help the student out of fear his secret will be revealed until a shocking act of violence in the school shower forces him to deal with his own lack of honesty about his sexuality.
What keeps this segment from hitting the bullseye is some unlikely plot developments in the last five minutes--and the character of Weber's lover, who doesn't seem to have much idea of what Weber could lose if he did come out and is, in my opinion, a wholly self-centered and unsympathetic partner. Let's face it, it's unrealistic to think that a gay teacher could come out in 1974 and even think of keeping his job. But the segment redeems itself with the resolution of the student's story--his character is true and believable and Thomas acquits himself nicely in the role. He deserves a chance at more roles like this than in mindless pap like "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
The final segment, unfortunately, is dreadful. Written by Fierstein, it centers on an unbelievable gay wedding and the relationship between a father and gay son played by Ed Asner and James LeGros. Set in the present day, the entire segment is marred by Fierstein's flip, bitchy gay humor and minor characters that are unnecessary. Fierstein even writes himself a role as a stereotypical, princing gay florist; personally, I find him to be much more appealing when he is playing against type, but that's only part of the problem: every time a valid point is made in the segment he shoots himself in the foot by following it with a Neil Simonesque gay joke that points out the fact that the entire episode is not grounded in reality but in a playwrite's fantasy. Sadly, it is also unrealistic to think that even in 2000, a small town of 24,000 would be so welcome to a gay wedding that the town council would approve it being held at the community center in front of a war memorial which is the centerpiece of the town square. In my own state of California, which is considered liberal and trend-setting, an anti-gay marriage proposition (#22) on this year's primary ballot enjoys widespread support so I seriously doubt a town would be so supportive and that only a handful of churchgoers and veterans would protest. Maybe I'm wrong, but sadly I don't think so.
In all, however, "Common Ground" is a noble, well-intentioned and worthwhile effort. I give it *** out of **** or a 7 out of 10.