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Unconditional Love is one of those strange, wretched made-for-TV movies that leaves one asking that familiar Hollywood question: What on earth were they smoking? The film, which debuts on the premium Starz movie channel this weekend, is as deeply flawed as it is unsatisfying and unfunny.
The story centers around Grace Beasley (Kathy Bates), a frumpy Chicago housewife, whose life is sent careening into despair when her husband (Dan Aykroyd) dumps her after 25 years of marriage. Grace finds solace in the music of Victor Fox (Jonathan Pryce), a balladeer who dresses like Liberace and sounds like Tom Jones.
But Grace’s world is sent spinning further out of control when Victor is murdered by a serial killer while on a concert tour in her hometown. She impulsively decides to fly to England to attend the crooner’s funeral, where she meets Dirk Simpson (Rupert Everett) and learns — much to her surprise — the two were gay lovers.
The plot continues to lurch this way and that, much like a toddler learning to walk, and ends up as a goofball murder mystery in which Grace and Dirk hunt down Victor’s killer.
Unconditional Love is a good example of messy moviemaking. The schizophrenic film never quite figures out what it wants to be. A buddy pic? Gay camp classic? Madcap adventure? In every instance, it fails. The fact that Unconditional Love was written and directed by the talented P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, My Best Friend’s Wedding) just adds to the disappointment.
It’s no surprise that Academy Award winner Bates tries her best to salvage the awful material. She positively shines as the miserable Grace brought low by fear and insecurity. As her character evolves (and I use that term loosely), you can’t help but cheer her inner grrl power.
Everett, by contrast, is a complete disaster. Unlike his eminently likable character in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Everett plays a nasty sod whose internal grace, if you will, is eventually brought out by Grace. Unfortunately, Everett doesn’t know how to play mean. So he screams a lot and crinkles his forehead.
As Grace’s co-loser in life, he also finds his inner grrl power. But while Bates manages to convey her transformation in the well-placed facial gesture or sigh, Everett is incapable of such nuance, rendering his growth completely unbelievable.
The most refreshing part of Unconditional Love is the hysterical performance turned in by Meredith Eaton, who plays Grace’s sassy, loud-mouthed daughter-in-law, Maudey. Because Eaton is a dwarf, you’d expect the writers to go after the requisite short jokes. They do.
But when they get over her size and set her character loose, Eaton rises to the occasion with an amazing portrayal of brash, trashy foil to Bates’s wimpy Grace. The writers give Eaton all the best jokes in the film — and thank God, because she’s the only one with the comedic chops to pull them off.
For all its weirdness, Unconditional Love is made even more jarring by the unexpected cameo appearances of Julie Andrews, Lynn Redgrave and Barry Manilow. Instead of adding to the film’s pull, they actually prove to be distractions. Someone sure did waste a lot of really big favors.