Review: Paul Bettany elevates manipulative but endearing family dramedy 'Uncle Frank'
Courtesy of Prime Video
Paul Bettany has been on hiatus in the drama world thanks to stints in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in Alan Ball’s formulaic, yet effective family dramedy “Uncle Frank,” Bettany returns to top notch form. The London-born actor still proves he’s got the dramatic chops from earlier in his career, and is a blast as the wise alcoholic gay profressor who lends his name to the title. We knew Bettany had the charm but his emotional range proves the winner in a tearjerker that borders on manipulative.
We first meet Frank at the large rural home of the Bledsoe family. While everyone argues and fusses indoors, you can find Frank - with a twirling mustache - stationed on the front porch reading a novel and chatting with his niece, and our narrator, Beth (Sophia Lillis). She has a connection with her uncle that most in her family do not, especially his strict father (Stephen Root) and naive younger brother (Steve Zahn). In fact, Frank always preaches encouraging messages of always being yourself.
Cut to 1973, four years later, Beth has transitioned from Creekview, South Carolina to New York University, where her uncle teaches literature. It’s here where audiences, and Beth, learn something about Frank: he’s been living with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) for almost a decade. Never married, and flaunting women in front of his family like a shiny new sports convertible, Frank kept his relationship a secret because South Carolina and his family, in the early ‘70s, aren’t exactly what you’d call progressive and his father would’ve disowned him more than he already did.
Upon finding out, Beth immediately accepts the news and connects with Wally, a Saudi Arbian immigrant expat, on their life together. But when the phone rings and Mom (Margo Martindale) delivers the news that Dad has passed, “Uncle Frank” detours into a road trip saga as the trio head into the Deep South.
On the journey, we get snippets and flashbacks into Frank’s childhood, and the tragic ending of his first love and how that psychological and emotional turmoil affected his relationship not only with himself, but his father too. Frank, like Wally, struggles to be himself hiding away in a box, ashamed of his sexuality; the latter’s mother is asking when she gets to meet the elusive daughter-in-law and the former hasn’t told his closest relatives. The plot grows and secrets come to light as “Uncle Frank” trots along - from the wake, the funeral, then the reading of the will, where Daddy Mack unleashes one last, heartbreaking blow to his son, you can see these milestones coming from miles away.
Alan Ball deals with many serious themes in his picture but the ending feels rushed, throwing a tidy bow on the proceeding events as if the trek to get there didn’t happen. Considering the timeline, and the state of gay rights in the country, you’d be surprised at how neatly “Uncle Frank” wraps up, undermining the character’s arch throughout the film. Bettany pulls honest emotions from an underwritten narrative, but the beats falter in the final 20 minutes.
Lillis, spunky as ever, is cheery and delightful as Beth, meanwhile Macdissi makes a stern anchor for Frank who just wants to be loved in a world that doesn’t know empathy. All the family dynamics, from Judy Greer playing the obsessive mother to the great Lois Smith portraying forgetful Granny, are where they need to be. At the end of the day, “Uncle Frank” was made with good intentions, and despite the clumsy road-trip comedy aspect and the fairy tale ending, Bettany’s self-reflective performance is what everyone will be talking about.
UNCLE FRANK will premiere on Amazon Prime Video Wednesday November 25th.