Saturday, February 04, 2006

Gender Bending

This year has had its fair share of gender-orientated movies, with Felicity Huffman's oscar-nominated role in Duncan Tucker's Transamerica, and Neil Jordan's telling of Irish adventurer Patrick "Kitten" Brady in Breakfast On Pluto. The past few years has suggested more of these films gaining interest, with movies such as 'Boys Don't Cry' gaining some worthy attention. Whether they will ever break into a mainstream format is debatable, but for the moment they are doing just fine.

Both Pluto and Transamerica have problems, but firstly I want to talk about Pluto's. Every once in a while (and when I say a while, I mean a length of time that's not quite long enough) there comes a film that tries to please too many people in too many ways, and subsequently loses track of its identity. Pluto is this type of film. It's ironic in a way that identity should be one of the film's biggest problems, considering its thematic nature of gender puzzlement.

Patrick "Kitten" Brady (Cillian Murphy) grows up with a disregard for everything and everyone around him, making him a rebellious and unorthodox figure. He wants desperately to be seen as a woman and therefore tries in vain to dress like one, behave like one, be like one. Murphy is miraculous, diving headlong into the character of Patrick, making you forget you are even looking at an actor. He captures Brady's sensitivity, his confusion and failure to acknowledge serious situations. At the core of Murphy lies Kitten's foolish lost childish nature and an inner strength that helps him ride through even the worst of times.

It's strange then, that the film must possess a terrorism sub-plot in order to explain the blase attitude of its biographical figure. I have no doubt that terrorism was going on in Ireland at this time, but the way that Pluto uses this to explain issues of characteristics is perhaps a little too drastic a move. This, as an attempt to dilute the heavily quirky, comedic angle of the film, is both naive and far-reaching. Breakfast On Pluto only works as a comedy, largely due to Murphy, but when drama is introduced frivolously and needlessly, you'll wish you had the lack of perspective of Kitten himself.

For essentially the same subject of gender identity, Transamerica has a very different way of dealing with it. Firstly, the character of Bree (Huffman), formerly Stanley, has already undergone sexual operations and is considerably more wise than Pluto's Kitten. The film also focuses on Bree's relationship with her son as opposed to Kitten's journey of self-discovery. Bree meets her son after a strange telephone call from a police station in New York, saying he has been taken in for hustling. Toby, unknowing that Bree was once his father, travels back with her, with the understanding that she is a Christian missionary.Transamerica remains very soulful throughout, the interaction between father and son through the road trip appearing natural and very genuine. This film is a lot about accepting other people for what they are, even if you don't like who they are.

Although Transamerica has quite a touching bond between the two main characters, the film tends to turn situations regarding transsexual societies, drugs, and over-bearing grandparents into silly comedy. There seems to be too much effort into creating a memorable trip, rather than embracing its central relationship in a way that similar films have in the past. The decision to include as many 'incidents' as possible escalates the film into a mode that it doesn't belong in, and takes away some of the emotional resonance.

And so I guess the underlying lesson is: If you're talking about people learning to accept themselves and others for their chosen identity, you must stick to your own. Nobody would care if there were no madcap moments in Transamerica, no moral questioning in Pluto. We just want you to tell a story.

Breakfast On Pluto - C-
Transamerica - D+

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