Disco-fueled drama looks for love in several wrong places
Gloria Bell (2019)
Directed by Sebastián Leilo
Cast: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera
The rigorously unsentimental romancer Gloria Bell is the work of Chilean writer-director Sebastián Leilo, a remake of his universally loved 2013 film Gloria, where the wannabe free-spirited main character was played by the pitch-perfect Paulina García. For this nearly scene-for-scene reshoot, Leilo has chosen wisely his replacement muse. Moore quickly slips into the skin of the character, a lonely woman for whom loneliness has becomes something of a comforting blanket. We first see her sitting at the bar of the dance club, back to the audience, sipping at her cocktail. We witness her dancing, silently, with various anonymous older men. She’s happy to be moving, happy to be dancing, but her happiness is small, fleeting and insular. She’s not here to pick up guys; she’s here because dancing to Anita Ward is just a thing that makes her happy. Leilo isn’t asking us to pity this woman, thankfully, but to join Moore inside her skin and figure out what makes her tick.
One evening Gloria catches the eye of fellow divorcé Arnold (John Turturro). He actively (if awkwardly) flirts with her, dances close to her and ends up taking her home for some mutually healing, long-time-coming sex. When Arnold actually calls her back days later, Gloria dares to think she might have stumbled into a worthwhile adult relationship. But Arnold, a former military guy who now owns a paintball park, is far closer to his divorce than Gloria. He’s only been away from his wife for a year—not that you could tell. His needy former spouse and his two hopelessly inept adult daughters call him every day asking for help, advice, money, whatever. Evidently, every stuck pickle jar is a crisis to them. And poor Arnold, nice guy that he is, doesn’t have the huevos to cut them out of his life.
Suddenly, Gloria, who looked like the poster child for post-middle-aged singleton ennui, seems like she’s not such a sad sack after all. A dinner party involving Gloria’s ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett) and his new wife (Jean Tripplehorn) sends Arnold into a spiral of jealousy. He sees Gloria and Dustin interacting nicely, reminiscing over old family photographs, and he assumes they’re still in love. He storms out of the dinner, only to call again in a day or so, full of regrets. What he fails to see in Gloria and Dustin’s face-to-face, however, is ordinary, friendly, semi-comfortable human interaction. For a guy who spends every day screaming into his cell phone to his former spouse, it just doesn’t compute. And it’s our first real indication that maybe Gloria’s life isn’t as screwed up as it seems.
The on-again off-again nature of Gloria and Arnold’s relationship forms the only real center to Leilo’s loose narrative. The rest of the film is driven simply by Moore’s lived-in performance. She underplays wonderfully, hinting at the feelings percolating just under Gloria’s drab countenance. Initially, it should noted, that it’s a little hard to swallow Julianne Moore as the sort of dull wallflower who would fail to attract attention at a singles club. Well on her way to closing out her 50s and ushering in her 60s, Moore is still a mesmerizing figure and would certainly lure swarms of AARP-eligible businessmen at an LA singles club. Leilo’s patient screenplay (adapted by Alice Johnson Boher) offers few answers as to the whys and wherefores of Gloria’s current life. Her grown children, Peter (Michael Cera, raising a baby with a wife who seems MIA) and Veronica (Alanna Ubach, pregnant by an itinerant Swedish surfer) are clearly bogged down in their own issues regarding intimacy and relationships—but that proves slight excuse for the utter indifference with which they treat their mother.
At the end of the day, though, Gloria Bell is less about wallowing in misery and more about seeking out and accepting joy in life’s tiny moments. You only get a certain amount of time on this planet, and you might not want to wait until you’re staring down retirement to start looking for personal fulfillment.
Of course, Gloria Bell is not How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It’s not about transformation and “you go girl” triumph. Even the film’s empowering coda is mild and delivered as a spur-of-the-moment whim. It’s an act that leads less to a life-changing epiphany and more to a moment of Zen-like acceptance.
Gloria Bell is all about the small things, and its filmmaker does a commendable job of expressing his characters’ thoughts and feelings symbolically—you know, without having to say them loud and proud. Gloria is seen continually ejecting a neighbor’s cat from her apartment. She’s simultaneously rejecting unconditional love and proving she’s no lonely old cat lady—not yet, anyway. Her crazy upstairs neighbor screams at the walls on a nightly basis, giving voice to the inner turmoil hidden beneath Gloria’s passive exterior. Finally, our heroine finds a bit too much significance in the pop songs she sings along to on the car radio—from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” Who among us hasn’t been guilty of that? And who among us—at least those of us who are rapidly approaching “a certain age”—can’t sympathize with this low-key “learn to love yourself” romance?