All the Beautiful Things: Sundance Review

A pretty but enormously self-indulgent project that wants us to play therapist. 

John D. Harkrider digs into his longtime friendship with photographer Barron Claiborne.

PARK CITY – An elaborately staged couples' therapy session for a friendship thrown off course by the specter of domestic violence, John Harkrider's All the Beautiful Things calls itself a doc but is so stylized and precious about its presentation of facts that few viewers will feel that label quite applies.

The narcissism is so thick that even interesting ideas drown in it, leaving a pretty package that only fairly generous viewers will accept.

Essentially a protracted, sometimes contentious conversation between longtime friends, Harkrider and Barron Claiborne, that has been reshaped as drama and set at a jazz club with a bartender playing mediator, the film begins with an oppressive prelude: Claiborne is seen, moody in a happy crowd, asking the camera "what the f--k are you looking at?" Meanwhile, Harkrider is introduced at home, hand-wringing to his wife over misgivings we're not in a position to understand.

Soon the two are at corner barstools at what has to be the only upscale jazz club in New York City that plays Bauhaus and Joy Division in between sets. Here, a young woman tending bar ignores the scores of patrons around her, inexplicably captivated by the personal histories of the two middle-aged men before her.

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As they recall their youth in Boston, where they met, Harkrider augments the stories with voiceover reenactments and appealing black-and-white illustrations by Matthew Woodson. Though it's clear from the start that their conversation will eventually deal with physical abuse -- something Harkrider witnessed as a child and Claiborne, evidently, has some first-hand experience with -- the film is long past the halfway point before it starts to clarify its main narrative. Many years ago, a lover accused Claiborne of rape and death threats; Harkrider, who was also friends with the woman, had to decide whom to support in the ensuing trial.

Breathers in the dialogue come from the band stage, where a small combo never tires of playing John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." What this has to do with the action is hard to say. But the group's trumpeter eventually goes outside to smoke a joint, staying out there a long time: Both our protagonists encounter him while stepping out to urinate against the building, striking up conversations with this Magical Negro who says just what they need to hear. (Never mind how false this conceit is. At a club as swanky as this, who would choose a cold, rainy sidewalk over a nice warm restroom?)

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The conversation ranges after closing time, musing on wealth and race as the men amble around Manhattan and Brooklyn. Harkrider is white, Claiborne is black, and the early years of their friendship were surely more interesting for that. But here, the most engaging statement on race comes before Claiborne has even reached the bar, as he takes a cabbie to task for trying to pass him by in favor of a white passenger.

Shot on 35mm, the picture is good-looking in a commercial way: Colored lights illuminate rain-slicked streets as steam billows up from the -- you know the drill. But all the atmosphere and buildup can't gloss over the fact that nearly nothing has been communicated here that is important to anyone other than these two men. (And to Claiborne's accuser, who vanishes from the discussion as if she only existed to test their bond.) Even on that front, a line we remember from the prologue admits a good deal of relevant material has been left out of the conversation.

Production Company: Riff Raff Films

Director: John D. Harkrider

Director of photography: Brian O'Carroll

Production designer: John Furgason

Music: Jeremy Pelt

Costume designer: Michael Anzalone

Editor: Jim Mol

No rating, 97 minutes