Michael Cunningham writes with a rare attentiveness to his characters' interior lives. His books register delicate shifts of emotion with the sensitivity of a high-tech barometer, and his characters capture the world in successions of crystalline observations, unique to their own points of view and yet true beyond themselves. Take this moment from his novel A Home At The End Of The World, when a hopeless music fan from Cleveland has his first taste of a mega-sized New York record store: "It was an important place—you'd have known that if you were blind and deaf. You'd have smelled it; you'd have felt it tingling on your skin. This was where the molecules were most purely and ecstatically agitated."
Cunningham's writing is unusually beautiful, but can it be filmed? In adapting Cunningham's novel The Hours, director Stephen Daldry dealt with the issue by bringing the inside out, offering one moment of overwrought symbolism after another. Working from a screenplay by Cunningham himself, first-time director Michael Mayer takes A Home At The End Of The World in the opposite direction, concentrating on plot while letting his characters' thoughts remain offscreen. The result: some intriguing moments, even more intriguing performances, and a film that doesn't quite work.
Set across three decades, A Home At The End Of The World follows the progress of two friends played as teens by Harris Allan and Erik Smith, and as adults by Dallas Roberts and Colin Farrell. Watching the '60s from the sidelines of high school, they fall into a friendship that's part brotherhood, part romance, and all adolescent vagaries. They never speak about what happens during their sleepovers, but they're both effusive about the need to secure Rolling Stones tickets. Separated for years, they reunite in '80s New York. Farrell still wears the vestiges of hippiedom's glory days, while Roberts looks at the world around him through almost painfully au courant frames. They renew their friendship with a new complication thrown into the mix in the form of roommate Robin Wright Penn, who comes to love them both in her own way.
As with Cunningham's book, the heart of the film concerns an unconscious attempt to fulfill the promise of the '60s with the freedoms of the East Village '80s. Farrell, Roberts, and Penn form an alternative family with small-scale utopian ambitions that the world, or their hearts, may not allow to last. It's a shame that the film so rarely slows down to capture why their story is worth telling. When it does, the performances come to life, particularly Farrell's sweet, almost manchildish take on his character. But mostly, Mayer loses these moments in the rush to tell a story that's thin in the details. The substance remains in between the lines that get lost in the transition from page to screen.