The melodramatic, octogenarian, queer comedy Cloudburst proves two very obvious points at the same time:
1. Two excellent actors, regardless of age or gender, at the top of their game can’t save a hokey, cloying screenplay from feeling better suited to the Hallmark Channel than to the big screen.
2. The Hallmark Channel would probably be too conservative to take a film about two gay characters living their lives together in the first place.
It’s not the fault of stars Olympia Dukakis or Brenda Fricker, both of whom are just as good as they ever were, but writer and director Thom Fitzgerald’s adaptation of his own stage play never rises above the baseline pap of standard crowd pleasers, which makes it even more obvious and cloying when he attempts to underline and bullet point this film’s sexuality based viewpoints points incessantly. It wants so desperately to be loved and understood that it becomes cringe-worthy when it should be a more admirable endeavour than it ends up being.
After living together for over thirty years, the foul mouthed and hard nosed lesbian Stella (Dukakis) feels threatened that her sweet, kindhearted, and sight impaired lover Dottie (Fricker) is going to be taken away by Dottie’s oblivious and bigoted daughter and placed in a home. In a bid to stay together, Stella breaks Dottie out of her potential prison, and absconds with her in a pick-up truck, voyaging on a road trip from Bangor, Maine to Halifax so they can get married and live out the remainder of their days together.
At any age, Dukakis and Fricker would make a formidable duo or couple. You could just sit the two of them in a room together and not have them say anything and they would be oddly compelling. Both wear the wrinkles, knowing smiles, and doubting eyes of shared experience on their face, and together they make the on-screen relationship work more than the story does. They are complementary in the best sort of ways. It’s easy to see how the obstinate Stella finds peace in Dottie. To Fitzgerald and Fricker’s credit, Dottie never once seems like a wilting and helpless flower or some sort of manic-pixie-old-lady. They add the realism that the film needs.
The road trip element of the film isn’t particularly inspired, but it should have been enough to sustain a simple, sweet story like this should be. Where Fitzgerald undercuts his film is by constantly making everyone emote like they are in a stage play and forcing them to spout dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or even actorly. It feels like “movie dialogue.” The kinds of words and phrases that people rarely even use and certainly not this many times over the course of the 93 minute feature. There are some good gags and turns of phrases, but this stuff is way too far over the top both comically and dramatically to have any true emotional resonance or catharsis.
This is the kind of film where Dukakis has to hem, haw, and remind people every ten seconds that she’s gay, which doesn’t let give the characters room to breathe to simply be themselves. A lot has been expanded upon in previous reviews along the film’s festival circuit screenings (where it has cleaned up and won tons of awards) about Stella’s potty mouth, but it’s oddly far more off putting and offensive watching Dukakis having to almost chronically remind people she’s, by her own admission “a dyke,” and she’s forced into making hamfisted cultural references to queer icons like K.D. Lang, Rosie O’Donnell, and “Jesus Anne Heche Christ.” It becomes very abrasive, very quickly, and it grinds the film to a halt every time.
I understand the need for the film to set itself apart, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to just treat people like people instead of only doing a retread of a classical story and constantly jabbing the audience in the ribs looking for acclaim for its perceived transgressive and boundary pushing nature? Maybe I’m just not square enough to understand the appeal of a film like Cloudburst (or I could just be a cynic. The jury is still out on that one.) and there’s definitely a sweet and prescient love story buried under the surface here (also buried beneath a subplot involving a dancer/drifter hitchhiking to his mother’s funeral that adds nothing but padding), but what makes it disappointing is that it’s just as cloying, corny, and heavy handed as the same kind of film that would have featured hetero characters.