'Looking: The Movie': Outfest Review

Looking Still Jonathan Groff Murray Bartlett Frankie J Alvarez H 2016
Melissa Moseley/HBO
An imperfect but stirring farewell to an underloved series.

Starring Jonathan Groff (Broadway's 'Hamilton'), the canceled HBO series about three gay men in San Francisco gets a special send-off in this 85-minute movie directed by co-creator Andrew Haigh.

The most common knock against Looking, the gorgeous HBO series about a trio of gay men stumbling through crises of love, work and friendship in current-day San Francisco, was that it was "boring." Even those of us who adored it could understand. Unlike Orange Is the New Black, Game of Thrones or The Americans, for example, Looking wasn’t fodder for water-cooler debate or spoiler alerts. There were no spectacular set pieces, plot twists or crotch shots (love you, Lena Dunham). Rather, Looking was that rare thing in the world of even top-tier television: subtle.

Whereas precursor Queer as Folk wanted to make you gasp and giggle at its characters' shenanigans, Looking was patient and nuanced, never seeming to strive for any particular audience reaction except perhaps wincing recognition. Flooded with flashier options, viewers shrugged and changed the channel; the show's cancellation came as no surprise.

But the fact that HBO gave creators Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh the chance to punctuate their superb two-season run with an 85-minute "movie" suggests the network knew it was turning its back on something special. And while Looking: The Movie (premiering at Outfest before airing July 23) isn't as astonishingly fine as Looking the series, there's enough greatness in it to make fans (we're out there!) agonize anew over the fact that, yes, this time it's over for real.

Looking: The Movie was directed and co-written by Haigh, who, with his films Weekend and 45 Years, has emerged as a formidable talent. The show was imbued with his lovely, unfussy visual sense and feel for life as it's lived rather than how it tends to be represented — heightened or stylized — on TV; it often played like a very long independent movie doled out in jewel-like 26-minute installments (in addition to Haigh, the episode directors were indie stalwarts Jamie Babbit, Ryan Fleck, Joe Swanberg and Craig Johnson).

But while the series wrung low-key suspense from its characters' indecision — from choices questioned, minds changed and courses reversed — Looking: The Movie tugs us in the direction of tidy resolution. I wish Haigh had ignored the pressure to tie up all the loose ends and instead more fully honored the show’s gentle melancholy, its respect for the messes we sometimes make of our lives. That said, within the confines of what it sets out to do, this final chapter in the story of Patrick (the brilliant, undersung Jonathan Groff), Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett) is quite effective and sometimes much more, building toward a final act that's a knockout of romantic tension and release.

It takes a while to get there. As a series, Looking invited us to sink into its characters' everyday lives; Looking: The Movie is set nearly a year after season 2 concluded, requiring some fill-in-the-blanks exposition that feels artificial by the show's standards of naturalism. Patrick, whom we last saw getting his hair cut by ex Richie (Raul Castillo) right after ditching British boyfriend-boss Kevin (Russell Tovey), has just flown into San Francisco. "First time here?" his taxi driver asks, prompting Patrick to explain that he's been away for several months and is back for a wedding. The grooms-to-be are Agustin — who's got a gig at the San Francisco Art Institute and has cut back on the drugs and rent boys — and his social worker love Eddie, played by the peerless Daniel Franzese. (That Eddie is HIV-positive, overweight and a total charmer is an example of how Looking has broadened the spectrum of gay male representation in heartening ways).

Patrick, Agustin and Dom meet up for dinner and drinks, their conversations updating us on the latest: Patrick's been working as a video game designer in Denver; Dom's peri peri chicken stand is thriving, his love life not so much; Doris (Lauren Weedman, her sublime way with one-liners intact) has settled into monogamy with Malik (Bashir Salahuddin), though they have no plans to get hitched (“Marriage is for the gays,” she deadpans in a later scene); and Richie has left the barber shop for a haircut truck but is still with hipster journalist boyfriend Brady (Chris Perfetti, excellent).

One of the wonders of Looking was its keen ear for the various ways people speak — from Patrick's effusive rambling to Richie's straight talk, Agustin's puckish repartee to Kevin's seductive equivocation. Some of the dialogue in Looking: The Movie, especially in the early scenes, is comparably generic, with a fair amount of reunion filler ("We haven't been to this bar in a million years!") and lots of confessional platitudes ("I'm not who I thought I'd be, and that's tough to take"; "It's easy to let the past make a mess of the present").

But things pick up when Patrick gets cruised by Jimmy, a 22-year-old with a naughty grin (a terrific Michael Rosen). What ensues is something that still qualifies as radical: some sweaty, slightly awkward gay sex followed by a long chat over warmed-up leftovers. As the two go from climactic panting to swapping stories about jobs, relationships and future plans, Looking: The Movie offers a richer, more authentic glimpse of contemporary gay life than most viewers will have had. A friendly, no-nonsense one-night stand between two men — just screwing and intelligent conversation, with no hint of AIDS-related dread, excessive titillation, guilt or even romance — may not sound like a big deal, but when's the last time you saw that on an American screen of any size?

There's a great moment when Jimmy mentions that he had his first boyfriend at 16 and Patrick's eyes widen. Like many LGBT folks over 30, he was deep in the closet at that age, and this new generation of self-assured gay men is something to behold with a mixture of awe and envy. At its core, Looking has always been about the happy conundrum ("happy" being a relative term) of the 21st century gay experience — namely how changing laws, growing societal acceptance and the evolution of HIV/AIDS treatments and awareness have expanded, and complicated, gay men's conception of their own lives. Patrick seems perpetually overwhelmed by choice; Agustin struggles with the implications of settling down ("I've become everything I rallied against for years," he moans); only Dom, who's at least a decade older, is unable to escape the clutches of the past, his relationship with Scott Bakula's Lynn having fizzled because Lynn couldn't quite let go of the partner he lost to AIDS. In Jimmy, Looking is pointing to a more straightforward, more privileged, but also less fraught gay identity — and when he advises Patrick to "bury your dead real good," Patrick listens, setting off to seek closure with Kevin.

Of course, as any Looking viewer knows, Patrick's most important unfinished business is with Richie, this saga's under-the-radar moral touchstone. Played with gruff soulfulness by the wonderful Castillo, Richie, who's Mexican-American, has been burned by Patrick (the show’s depiction of how biases of race and class tainted the relationship was masterful). But the two still care about each other, and their interactions in Looking: The Movie — often shot in long walk-and-talk takes, as in the series — feel alive with crosscurrents of hurt and yearning.

As the only recent American TV show revolving entirely around gay men, Looking bore the burden of representation. Some gay viewers seemed to dislike it essentially for failing to accurately reflect their own experiences, or live up to their standards of what gay men should be (More intellectual? More political? More fabulous? Less narcissistic?). Toward the end of Looking: The Movie, when Patrick says of Richie's judgy boyfriend, "Brady thinks there's only one way to be gay, and that way is his way," it's hard not to suspect that Haigh and Lannan are snapping back at those critics.

My response would be that any series, or movie, that portrays gay characters with such close attention, such warmth, humor and insight, so little pandering and bombast, such aesthetic rigor (from the Bay Area locales to the inspired closing-credit music selections), and such sensitivity to the complex swirl of human emotions should be cause for celebration. Whatever its shortcomings, Looking: The Movie is essential viewing, and hopefully will send even skeptics back to give the series another shot. Boring? Fine. If you ask me, we were lucky to be so bored.

Cast: Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett, Lauren Weedman, Raul Castillo, Russell Tovey, Daniel Franzese, Tyne Daly
Director: Andrew Haigh
Writers: Andrew Haigh, Michael Lannan
Executive producers: Andrew Haigh, Michael Lannan, Sarah Condon
Airs: Saturday, July 23, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)