Too much is never enough for fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford, whose debut feature flaunts its capital-A Artiness the way some Napoleonic gym rats flaunt their overdeveloped musculature. He prefers art direction over actual direction, and extravagant surfaces over the lower depths of meaning and emotion.
Based on Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, Ford's A Single Man is nothing if not a master class in sartorial excellence ("Wardrobe for Colin Firth Provided by Tom Ford Menswear" state the credits), freshly exfoliated skin, and modern Southern California architecture. Not a hair or a shaft of light appears out of its careful place.
Ford, who also co-wrote the screenplay, hews fairly close to the events of Isherwood's slender, elegant novel, which encompasses a day in the life of George Falconer (Firth), a British expat teaching English at a small Los Angeles college around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and, when the story begins, mourning the recent death of his longtime lover and companion, Jim. Over the course of George's day, he endures the casual homophobia of his smiling suburban neighbors; lectures on Aldous Huxley to a classroom of complacent, disinterested students; and drops in for dinner with his gin-swilling divorcée confidante (Julianne Moore). All the while, he's pondering his station in life and what — if anything — our brief time on this Earth really means.
Eventually, the prof ends up drowning his sorrows at a local watering hole, where he happens upon his flirtatious student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who challenges him to a late-night skinny dip in the Pacific and subsequently follows him home, perhaps not just to towel off.
Ford, who discovered Isherwood's novel when he was in his early 20s, has said he was "moved by the honesty and simplicity of the story." Simplicity, however, is not Ford's strength. Gussied up with enough stylistic fireworks for several Fourth of July parades, A Single Man lets you know what you're in for early on, with a tedious opening-credit sequence set over a nude Firth writhing about in a bottomless sea (a ploddingly literal interpretation of a metaphor from the novel's final pages), followed by an equally protracted montage of George going through his daily grooming rituals.
No more than 10 minutes in, the movie already has the feel of an exquisitely preserved corpse laid out for viewing, which may be partly intentional given that the director has also decided to amplify Isherwood's melancholic tone by turning George from a mild depressive into a full-blown suicide case. But his greatest concession to style comes in the form of the desaturated color palette — a funereal parade of blacks, grays and browns that periodically erupts into full-blown Technicolor whenever George feels a flush of passion. One can think of any number of actual porn films with a less obvious touch and more genuine feeling.
Firth, in spite of Ford's best efforts to turn him into another piece of movable scenery, manages to convey a real human soul stirring beneath George's petrified façade — the sense of a vulnerable man, fundamentally uncomfortable in his own skin, who has lost the only person who ever allowed him to lose sight of himself. His performance is an island of honesty and simplicity, swallowed up by a sea of excess.