2023 | rated R | starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton | directed by Todd Haynes | 1h 57m |

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is an actress who visits Savannah, Georgia to research the subjects of her latest film role. That role is for a movie based on the true story of Gracie (Julianne Moore), who some 20 years ago engaged in a statutory rape relationship with a 13 year old, went to jail and now lives a quiet life with the boy, now her husband Joe (Charles Melton), with their kids, friends and a supportive community. Elizabeth’s trip starts to raise questions that threaten to split the family’s quiet existence apart.

There are a few ideas swirling around in May December that, if pulled together and tightened up, could have made for a unique and interesting film. It’s director Todd Hayes, of the immaculate May/December period romance Carol, and he seems to be flailing around a bit here, unable or unwilling to drill into the core of this potentially flammable story and pull the pieces together. The film is on one-hand a straight drama, out of a Lifetime TV movie, a scandalous affair that rocks a family and the usurper who comes in and breaks down the carefully arrange house of cards.

It is also hyper-self-aware. Almost, but not quite, a parody of itself. The music, straight out of a 90s psychosexual thriller, drowns the film in melodrama that winks and nods at us. It cues up dramatically in the opening minutes as Moore’s Gracie realizes she might not have enough hot dogs for their gathering. May December too often looks and sounds just like The Room for it to be an accident. And in it everything is just a bit off. Elizabeth arrives at the house by herself and nobody seems particularly excited to see a big Hollywood celebrity. Elizabeth develops an inexplicable attraction to Joe. Gracie is unphased by the idea that her life is about to be made into a movie. Everything is just a bit to stale, static and taking itself too seriously.

Hayes’ film is built on shreds of plots from other, juicer pieces of camp that it doesn’t fully tug on. In a movie that went a bit further, Elizabeth might secretly despise these people and their circumstance and set out to ruin their lives. Or maybe we would get a Hollywood satire where the events are twisted into something more romantic and  forgiving, or sensational than they actually are. Or maybe Elizabeth starts getting too attached to the woman she’s trying to emulate and the lines between reality and fiction blur (which this movie almost does). But those movies all already exist and execute these ideas with fully felt-out curiosity. That’s Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It’s Olivia Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. Great movies, that Hayes just samples here and there.

May December is frustrating in how wooden and superficial it is. I’m baffled and gobsmacked as to what so many critics see in this unfocused mess. Performances are good all around and that’s about it. Portman and Moore are in typically fine form, particularly Moore who plays Gracie as someone carefully managing a delusion. The movie runs the razor’s edge of sympathizing and interrogating these characters and their actions and as a result doesn’t say anything in either direction, not exploring the complexities or satirically condemning – any – angle of this story. The case of a female predator grooming a male child. The Hollywood project that seeks to retell the story (in a light we are never made aware of only Portman’s assurances to her subject).

Instead of exploring character drama or meta melodrama satire, May December just kind of exists. A self-licking ice cream cone of a film, that revels in the arm’s-length it keeps from it’s own material. Basic technical and performance work aside, I hated almost every second of it and it’s gutless take on this story.