Movie Review: Emotional complexity, melodramatic wit and masterful acting in ‘May December’

There is hardly a false note in “ May December, ” an audaciously self-aware, mischievously funny and emotionally complex drama that defies simple categorization.

Filmmaker Todd Haynes, working from a script by newcomer Samy Burch, deftly mixes cheesy movie of the week tropes with the psychological depths of Bergman to make this wholly singular piece that never quite lets the viewer relax on solid ground.

The set up involves an actor, Elizabeth Barry, played by Natalie Portman, who is spending some time with the real person she’s decided to play in a film. That subject is Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who, when she was 36, was arrested and imprisoned for starting a physical relationship with a 12-year-old boy. Two decades later Gracie and that boy, Joe (Charles Melton), are married with three kids, one in college and twins about to go.

There have been cheap, seemingly exploitative movies made about them before, which we get brief glimpses of. Gracie tells Elizabeth, on their first meeting, that she just wants her to tell the story right. Elizabeth responds that she wants her to “feel seen and known.” Both Moore and Portman are smiling sweetly, on perfectly polite stranger behavior, but it is also deeply uncomfortable. Is one lying? Are both? Who can we trust? Who do we like? Does it matter?

We already knew that Haynes was a master of melodrama, with films like “Carol” and “Far From Heaven,” but in “May December” he gestures to the aesthetics of ripped-from-the-tabloids Lifetime fare. He layers that with a boldly dramatic score, borrowed from the past (the late French composer Michel Legrand’s theme from “The Go-Between”) and brilliantly deployed in both comedic and serious ways. Early in the film, Gracie is preparing for Elizabeth’s arrival and opens her refrigerator when the score dips. We brace for something serious and dramatic as the camera zooms in on Moore: “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs," she says.

Elizabeth isn’t just there to watch them eat dinner and ask some questions. She is wildly driven to get to some sort of truth about Gracie, running around town like an investigative journalist interviewing everyone she can. Portman plays Elizabeth as impishly manipulative, utilizing the full power of her character’s celebrity and its effect on people to get intimate confessions. It is a deliriously fun and unnerving send-up of both stardom and an actor’s process. Late in the film, she calls it a story. Joe reminds her that it’s their actual life. You can almost imagine Elizabeth Barry’s deeply untruthful press tour for the film.

Gracie is harder to grasp, but she will keep the audience, and Elizabeth, on their toes for the duration. Just when you think you have a handle on something, she subverts it. We are, however, treated to some of her private moments that only Joe sees — her fragility, her delusions, her naivete. And Moore and Portman are electric in their scenes together, masterful performers whose characters are similarly performing for one another.

It’s wonderfully fun to watch what they do, how they can make even the most basic of interactions slyly subversive and catty and how both try to maintain control over every conversation. But that they are great is not the big surprise of the film: Melton is. He will break your heart and not because of any huge Oscar-reel moment, but all the small ones leading up to the very earned tears. He's the sobering remind that behind all the intrigue and scandal and fun of the quest for truth, if we accept the reality of “May December” as some sort of reality, then we have to accept the tragedy of Joe.

Melton plays this 36-year-old father of three college age kids quietly. His first scenes with Gracie show a relationship that reads more mother-son than wife-husband, and not even just because of the age difference. At times he seems like a shadow of a person, playing the role of beer-drinking, hot dog grilling contented dad with an almost empty nest. He is, in this movie, still becoming, and maybe just now starting to grapple with the truth, as he raises his monarch butterflies and attempts to flirt over text with another person.

In fact, Joe, and Melton, might be the biggest masterstroke of “May December.” Scandalous fun and camp are, you imagine, relatively easy with performers like this. But to give it a soul, too? It makes it monumental.

“May December,” a Netflix release in theaters Nov. 17 and streaming Dec. 1, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “some sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.” Running time: 117 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.