Love and Death on Long Island
Screenplay : Richard Kwietniowsk (based on the novel by Gilbert Adair)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : John Hurt (Giles De'Ath), Jason Priestley (Ronnie Bostock), Fiona Loewi (Audrey), Sheila Hancock (Mrs. Barker), Maury Chaykin (Irv), Gawn Grainger (Henry), Elizabeth Quinn (Mrs. Reed)
Humans are strange, emotional creatures, and sometimes we react to each other in unexpected ways. It is easy for a person to become caught up, fascinated with someone else, often blurring the line between interest and obsession. With the advent of movies and television, it has become even easier, because the screen gives us a plethora of beautiful, fascinating subjects to observe and wonder about. What else explains all the fan clubs, teen picture magazines, fan mail, Web sites, and girls who cry when they see Leonardo DiCaprio?
"Love and Death on Long Island" is about this very subject, but it goes about it in a peculiar and surprising way. The object of affection is a B-movie star named Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly), who stars in cheesy flicks with titles like "Hotpants College II" and "Skid Marks." The person who is so taken with him is a stuffy, British intellectual author named Giles De'Ath (John Hurt), who discovers Ronnie only because he accidentally goes into a theater showing "Hotpants College II," instead of the latest adaptation of an E.M. Forester novel.
Giles is a secluded man, a reclusive widower who has buried himself in his mahogany office, surrounded by books. As a man resistant to change, he doesn't so much despise technology as he ignores it. He doesn't own a television, a VCR, a microwave, or an answering machine. He refuses to give interviews, and spends all his time hand-writing long, probably unreadable books about distant academic subjects. He is the last man in the world who would become obsessed with a bad American actor, which is what makes the entire premise of the film both hilarious and poignant. Here is an unreachable man whose armor is cracked in the most unexpected way.
Giles' obsession with Ronnie is never fully explained, nor should it be. Some will narrowly interpret it as homosexual love, but I think it's bigger than that. There is never an instance in the film where Giles seems interested in sex -- he is simply fascinated by Ronnie. He returns to the theater to see "Hotpants College II," and then begins to research. He discovers Ronnie's picture plastered all over fan magazines like "Sugar," the title of which proudly declares it "The #1 British girls magazine." Giles is so embarrassed about buying it, he wraps it up in another magazine to hide it.
Giles then looks up Ronnie's other movies on video, which prompts him to buy a VCR. When the delivery boy arrives with the new machine, he is quite surprised to find that Giles doesn't realize the necessity of a TV to make the VCR work. After seeing the other two movies Ronnie has starred in as well as a really bad sitcom, Giles decides to find the man himself. As part of the trivia gleaned from the fan 'zines, Giles learns that Ronnie lives on Long Island in New York. There's an amusing dream sequence where Giles imagines that he's on a British game show, answering trivia questions about Ronnie "life work," such as what his dog's name is and what he has a weakness for (pizza with extra anchovies).
"Love and Death on Long Island" is an odd, but thoroughly insightful, touching, and entertaining film. The first half is funny in a goofy kind of way. We watch Giles hide the teen fan magazines from his maid and watch bad straight-to-video movies with the misguided interpretive eye of a Shakespearean critic. There's another funny sequence when he's supposed to be lecturing on "The Death of the Future," and ends up rambling on a tangent about the subtleties of acting (with Ronnie in mind, of course).
The second half of the film is more thoughtful and pointed, when Giles finally meets Ronnie and his fiancee, a likable model named Audrey (Fiona Loewi). Giles tries to convince Ronnie that he can be more than what he is, that his career deserves better than the next sequel to "Hotpants College." But, even as Giles is saying the words, we know as surely as Ronnie does that it's not right. No matter how intense Gile's fascination is, Ronnie is not a great actor and probably never will be.
The strength of the film is in its cast, especially John Hurt. He creates a wonderfully memorable character in Giles -- a dignified man of superior intellect who finally discovers his weakness. Hurt's performance simply embues intellect, distinction, and a disdain for all things non-academic. In his tweed jackets and wide ties, Hurt is utterly believable when he still refers to the movies as "pictures."
As Ronnie, Jason Priestly displays a fine knack for serious acting, even if he is essentially parodying his own teen stardom from eight years of "Beverly Hills 90210." But, let's not forget that Johnny Depp got a cinematic jump-start in John Waters' "Cry-Baby" (1990), parodying his stardom from "21 Jump Street." Priestly certainly holds his own during the film's most important moments near the end of the film, where much is said but not spoken between Giles and Ronnie.
©1998 James Kendrick