Throughout his career, and particularly in his later years since he went digital, Steven Soderbergh has been a filmmaker interested in clinically capturing processes through his camera without any sort of external emotional manipulation and just letting the story develope on its own. This has made for some exciting cinema in his telling of stories involving detectives falling for escaped convicts, elaborate con jobs, the mundane lives of workers in a doll factory, or life during a pandemic told through various vantage points. For his (supposedly) last feature-length project, he turned his observant eye to Behind the Candelabra, about the private life of Liberace (Michael Douglas) and one of his long-time, super-secret gay lovers, Scott Thornson (Matt Damon). On paper this sounded like a perfect match, but the finished product proved that it was anything but.
The main problem with the film is that its focus, the relationship, paints both lead characters as completely ordinary and boring individuals. So what if Liberace was a horny old man that liked to get it on with young men and in the back rooms of adult video stores? Who cares about this naïve young man who gave up his youth and face for whatever reason that the film never quite makes clear. Was it money, the promise of a luxurious life, or did he really have feelings for him from the get-go? With this all we are left with is two hours of watching a completely ordinary couple just hanging out watching TV, having sex, then fight about infidelity, taking drugs, and getting plastic surgery together. If Soderberg and writer Richard LaGravenese’s goal was to take the mystique away from Liberace then I’d say they succeeded, but that doesn’t really make for compelling cinema (or television). There were things they could have done with the story that could have made it better, like focusing on the millions of dollars and PR that had to be done to make sure that Liberace’s sexuality was kept secret and the psychological impact this had on him. Or how about making a film about Liberace the show man? After all, the most compelling scene is the first one where we see him play. Alas, they tried to make it into a love story when there’s nothing particularly unique or interesting about that aspect.
Now, even then this could have been improved a bit by adding more melodrama to the procedures, but as I’ve noted, Soderbergh has no interest in manipulating audiences, therefore his traditionally clinical, alienating style just doesn’t fit this particular story. When I got excited about him taking on the subject I imagined his take being a bit more psychological, but what I got was yet another over-hyped HBO film, and the laziest film he could have ended his career with.
And really, this feels like it’s the laziest effort for almost everyone involved. Douglas and Damon are not bad, but they are greatly held back by the general blandness of their characters. The former really only shines when his character is on stage. The rest of the supporting cast is also wasted on thankless roles. Even Peter Andrews, who has given us some of the most memorable cinematography of the last few years on films like Contagion, Haywire, and Side Effects doesn’t feel special. It’s pretty, but not special. The only bright spots in the whole thing are the production design, costumes, makeup, and Rob Lowe’s hilarious performance as Liberace’s plastic surgeon, but they are not enough to make this whole affair worthwhile.
In addition to Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh also had Side Effects, his last theatrical release. I do wish it had been released after Candelabra because it’s a great twisty ride despite being campy at times. This way, his film-making career would have ended on a high note, and not in a completely unremarkable one.