Title: Gray Matters
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Sue Kramer
Screenwriters: Sue Kramer
Starring: Heather Graham, Tom Cavanagh, Bridget Moynahan
“Sitcom” is a descriptor often bandied about to insult unambitious comedies that could be at home on the small screen, but rarely has it been as accurate as with Gray Matters, which I maintain actually is a sitcom, and someone simply made a mistake. Starting as something frivolous and ending as something entirely different but just as frivolous, the film takes a blithe romp through romantic comedy formulas with impossibly airheaded characters and vague, unsubstantiated gestures toward some sort of social significance. It’s amusing enough — even charming in a silly way — but you get the sense that there’s a lack of cinematic purpose: as a narrative it’s bewilderingly flighty, and the characters are barely even there.
It will help to give you a sense of the sort of humor Gray Matters leans on to get through a 90-minute run time. There are, for example, multiple repetitions of the trusty format wherein a character vehemently insists that there is no way on God’s earth she is ever going to do X, followed immediately by a shot of her dejectedly doing X. At one point, Heather Graham’s Gray, having done something impulsive, begins to furiously pace around her hotel room; the camera zooms in on a clock as its hands fast-forward, and then returns to our protagonist who, we realize, has been pacing for hours. There’s a lot of this sort of thing (I should mention Sissy Spacek as Gray’s therapist, who insists on having sessions while bowling and rock climbing), and you know what — it’s actually kind of dorky enough to be likable.
More startling than the film’s obstinate insistence on employing gags that have been dated for decades is its narrative schizophrenia. I have no problem with stories that take abrupt left turns, even absurd ones, but Gray Matters plays like writer-director Sue Kramer simply tired of her original conceit (a cohabitating brother and sister become alarmed when people start assuming they’re a couple, and resolve to find mates) and decided to ditch it when she stumbled upon a better one (aptly described by Lisa Schwartzbaum as “Oh my God, I’m a lesbian!”). Even when the initial storyline is out of the picture, though, Kramer remains invested in the whole brother-sister thing, and the brother (a pretty awful Tom Cavanaugh) becomes increasingly irrelevant but continuously present.
The gay themes are troubling for a while: the fact that the thirty-something Gray discovers her homosexuality late in life is at the core of the film, but Kramer weirdly seems to ascribe this to her indecisiveness, making much, for example, of her inability to pick out groceries without buying up the entire store. This is a mildly disturbing claim, if indeed she makes it, but in any event, she later disavows it by having Cavanaugh’s Sam reassure Gray that “it’s not like you made a choice.” Hmm.
By the time Alan Cumming, playing a Scottish cabbie who befriends Gray in her time of turmoil, dresses up as a woman to take Gray to a lesbian bar (no men allowed, you see), we’ve come to expect this sort of earnest throwaway silliness. It’s all about being comfortable with who you are, saying what you feel (though interestingly, keeping mum at a crucial point late in the film has the biggest pay-off), doing what feels right even if it’s hard or if it upsets people — the sorts of harmlessly uplifting lessons sitcoms often try to tackle. To its credit, Gray Matters goes through these without condescending or trying the nerves. But in cheerfully embracing the sitcom’s limitations, Kramer resigns her film to a sort of amiable mediocrity. Though pleasant, it seems to disintegrate before your very eyes.