A Very Serious Person

Wolfe Video,

Charles Busch

Charles Busch,
Carl Andress

Charles Busch,
Polly Bergen,
P.J. Verhoest,
Dana Ivey, Julie Halston, Carl Andress

Unrated, 95 minutes

The Anal Retentive Swede
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, February, 2009

Outrageous camp is Charles Busch's forte. I've enjoyed local theatre productions by Buffalo United Artists of two of his campiest plays, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party. His brand of drag humor and parody is ideally suited for the stage; the material worked in spurts in the Psycho Beach Party movie but proved deadly in the boring film version of Die, Mommie, Die! Busch's drag creations are legendary but Die, Mommie, Die! was proof that the mere visage of Busch looking fabulous in drag isn't enough to carry a feature film.

I mean this in all respect when I write that Busch gave his greatest performance as a gay inmate on HBO's prison series, Oz. In one of the show's best story arcs, he smothers his cellmate, a Mafia Don, with a pillow. For two seasons, Busch played Nat (Natalie) Ginzburg with strength and dignity, especially when his character suffered from severe AIDS complications while sitting on death row. Nat was an amazing role, unlike anything I would have ever expected. In one of the series' most memorable scenes, Nat is dressed to kill for his execution and asks Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno) if she will do his nails at dawn before he goes to the chair. When he dies in his sleep, Peter Marie, undaunted, finishes painting his nails the next morning.

Busch comes very close to finding a similar part, understated and hardly fabulous, in his latest film, A Very Serious Person. I read the press release with a little trepidation; Busch not only stars in the film but he also co-wrote and directed as well. This is often a bad sign but there's an old saying not to judge a book by its cover; this screener had been sitting around for awhile and I thought I'd give it a chance.

The first hour of A Very Serious Person is very touching tale of a young lad who is beginning to realize that he is gay. Gil (P.J. Verhoest) is 13, a budding artist who likes to listen to opera and pretend that he is Marie Antoinette. He lives with his beloved Grandmother (Polly Bergen) and they are vacationing at her summer home. Grandma's health is rapidly failing and Gil knows that this will be their last summer together. The household is taken by surprise by the arrival of their new, and highly unorthodox, live-in nurse, Jan (Charles Busch). For starters, no one was expecting Jan (pronounced Yaan) to be a man.

Jan is one of the most bizarre characters I have ever seen in a movie. He looks like a cross between William Hurt in Kiss Of the Spider Woman and Terrence Stamp in Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert. His features are severe, his long hair is pulled back in a ponytail and he speaks with a thick Scandinavian accent. His brusque manner provides the core to the film's offbeat humor. He is a control freak Florence Nightengale crossed with Mike Meyers' uptight and prissy Dieter character from "Sprockets." (I kept waiting for him to announce "Now's the time on 'Sprockets' when ve dance!!!") He is wont to spout such nuggets of wisdom as "Why is it necessary to walk around grinning like the village idiot... be grateful for five minutes of happiness twice a year." His demeanor is so Scandinavian that he is actually reading Kierkegaard in one scene.
Grandma adores Jan while Gil and their housekeeper, Betty, quickly tire of the authoritative nurse barking commands and demanding order. When Gil has a hissy fit one afternoon because his Grandmother is too tired to watch Gone With The Wind with him, Jan drags the screaming drama queen outside and sprays him with a hose. Afterwards, Gil begins to bond with the Danish nurse and Jan's attentions towards the boy - especially as his patient grows sicker - become more and more parental. Gil intuits that Jan is gay and begins to ask questions and the stand-offish Swede's discomfort is hilarious.
This being a movie starring Charles Busch, one wouldn't be blamed for thinking that he will spend the film's running length teaching the kid to be fabulous. But Busch subverts the expectations of his audience and behaves in reverse. Because Gil will be going to live with relatives when his Grandmother dies, Jan fears that the boy will be in a less accepting environment and actually tries to discourage Gil from being himself. Gil is a wonderful free spirit while Jan, horrified when Gil wants to wear a dress for a gag carnival photo, insists that the lad be a more "serious person." Like him.
For the most part, aside from some annoying background music that sounds like it came from television's The Odd Couple, the first hour was a pleasant surprise. I love quirky comedies and the humor here is offbeat and usually deadpan instead of going over the top. (An example: Gil is running to keep up with Jan and asks "Don't you ever sweat?" and the nurse robotically replies "Only commonplace people sweat.") The unique relationship between Gil and his Grandmother is very touching without being cloying. "Can I have your gold bracelet when you're gone?" he asks, early on. Even the scenes where he learns to swim to please his Grandmother manage NOT to be nauseating. We know that she is going to die before the film ends and, remarkably, her illness isn't milked for every last drop of pathos. Gil is even allowed to get angry during a scene when she becomes delirious and doesn't recognize him.
But, like so many of the films that I get to review, this one starts out promising and them implodes. Unfortunately, the last half hour becomes insufferably maudlin, culminating with my most dreaded of queer film plot developments when Jan decides that he wants to be the boy's father. At that point, it was all I could do to keep my finger off of the fast forward button on my remote. Thankfully, the scene where everyone dresses up to perform Gil's special play for his Grandma (Busch's only appearance in stunning drag) is cut short when she has a seizure and they have to call an ambulence. The film's initial emphasis shifts away from Gil around the halfway mark and then the vanity project I feared materializes as Busch's Jan character dominates the rest of the story.

Still, I loved most of the first hour and the blurb on the DVD box is correct in stating that this is "Charles Busch as you've never seen him before." His character is a trip to say the least and so unlike the fabulous women he usually portrays. The sheer weirdness of it all got my attention and I was captivated. The performances are terrific across the board and the movie is competently filmed. Gil's coming of age is sensitively handled rather than just being a typical misfit fish out of water story and Jan is one of the most unusual mentors you will ever encounter in a movie. A Very Serious Person certainly wasn't what I was expecting and that, in itself, is a rare thing. I just wish that the third act lived up to the rest of the film.


More On Charles Busch:
Die, Mommie! Die!