One of the most memorable sections of Los Angeles Plays Itself—Thom Andersen’s seminal, nitpicky video essay about the ways in which American movies have framed, disguised, and mis-portrayed his hometown—is devoted to modernist villain’s lairs and what Andersen calls, with nary a trace of irony, “Hollywood’s war against modern architecture.” Andersen loves Los Angeles and he loves the International Style cube compounds and mid-century glass boxes that dot its tonier neighborhoods. And so he takes it very personally when his other great love, the movies, uses them to represent the homes of vice kingpins, gangsters, and other assorted crooks. (This leads to declarations like “The ultimate insult to [John] Lautner’s work came in Lethal Weapon 2.”)
Andersen is the kind of smart, highly opinionated thinker who can make salient, useful observations while overlooking key facts, and though his central ideas are tight, they’re occasionally undermined by what could be called practical-creative concerns. The clips he uses to support his argument—drawn from L.A. Confidential, The Big Lebowski, and The Replacement Killers, to name a few—all come from scenes that are meant to create tension, and there’s something about the way in which the clean lines of modular, open-space design frame up with the edges of a movie screen that lends itself to staging drama.
At this point the reader is probably wondering what any of this has to do with You’re Not You; the answer is, actually, quite a bit. The movie—which takes place in Texas, but was shot in L.A.—centers on the relationship between a thirtysomething woman with ALS and her college-age caretaker, and is set in large part in and around the former’s modernist, cutout-cube home. Its director, George C. Wolfe, is a Broadway veteran (he won a Tony for the original production of Angels In America, and created Bring In ’Da Noise, Bring In ’Da Funk) and something of a house nut, having previously helmed Nights In Rodanthe, which was set around a rambling bed-and-breakfast that sat, precariously, on stilts that were set into a North Carolina beach.
That’s a long way of saying that Wolfe understands the practical-creative business of getting actors to play off of space and architecture and the importance of scale. On that most basic, elemental level, You’re Not You is about a couple of counterposed bodies, belonging to Kate (Hilary Swank), who loses more and more of her mobility as the movie goes on, and to Bec (Emmy Rossum), who is loose-limbed and fidgety. Kate’s home, with its high ceilings and all-neutral color scheme, comes to resemble a performance space, and there’s something dance-like to the central relationship, which finds Bec’s body—all but overtly eroticized—becoming a kind of proxy for all the gestures Kate can longer make. Bec’s wardrobe, with its jangly necklaces and see-through shirts, suggests unpredictable and uninhibited movement, just as Kate’s high-end department-store sweaters seem to be choking her. At one point, Kate—whose voice has become barely intelligible—asks Bec to scream on her behalf, and silently mouths along.
Here’s the frustrating thing about You’re Not You: Wolfe clearly knows what he’s doing and has the actors to pull it off, but he’s tasteful to a fault. Great melodramas achieve the sublime by risking ridicule, something which You’re Not You does only once, in a late scene where Bec sits down at Kate’s grand piano. (One would say that the instrument had been gathering dust since Kate lost the ability to play if her house weren’t so impeccably, sickeningly clean.) Without that crucial element of exaggeration, the movie’s sappiness registers as, well, sappy. It’s a facile sisterhood empowerment narrative, complete with philandering men to tell off, letters to read aloud, high heels to ogle, and lessons to learn; Bec shows Kate how to be more assertive and how to swear and get stoned, while Kate teaches Bec about the importance of not letting opportunities pass her by. And yet, every now and then, it cuts to a close-up—like Kate’s hands struggling to hold on to the glossy pages of Elle as it slips off her lap, or her face as guests at a holiday party shake hands an inch in front of her nose—that makes the viewer wish that Wolfe were less restrained, and more willing to use his practical-creative sense expressively.