Much has been made of Soderbergh’s supposed “retirement” from filmmaking, but I’m beginning to suspect that the whole thing is just a ploy to make it more of a “coup” when someone snags him for a new project. Yes, Behind the Candelabra wrapped before Soderbergh announced he was stepping down, but now he’s in talks to do a new series for Cinemax entitled The Knick starring Clive Owen — which sounds like a very interesting project indeed, and I look forward to it — but it seems to me that his self-imposed exile just makes him all the more attractive to selective, high profile projects.
Which brings me to Behind the Candelabra — does it work? In a word, no. I was rather disappointed, because at his best, as in Magic Mike (which was on HBO right before Candelabra, and thus offered an immediate and welcome contrast to the the film), he’s a really accomplished filmmaker, both in directing the actors, and staging the entire production — but here he seems content to set it up and shoot it, for as usual, Soderbergh does his own cinematography under the alias of Peter Andrews, and then cuts it together — here, in a really routine fashion — again using an alias, as Mary Ann Bernard.
The resulting film is flat, predictable, and uninvolving, and though Douglas attacks the role of Liberace with gusto, he doesn’t really have the “larger than life” punch that the character requires. The rest of the cast tackle their roles with varying degrees of success: Rob Lowe is a standout, perfectly creepy as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon; Debbie Reynolds is all but unrecognizable as Liberace’s mother, and really doesn’t make an impression; Matt Damon is appropriately wide-eyed as Scott Thorson, and Dan Ackroyd is matter-of-fact as Liberace’s business manager.
I was surprised to see former sitcom star Paul Reiser in a very small role as Thorson’s attorney near the end of the film, and the film is certainly well mounted, with no skimping on production values. But in the end, it feels exploitational and hammered out, as most TV movies are. Magic Mike reminded me just how good Soderbergh can be when he really clicks with a project, but Behind the Candelabra too often descends into clichés and has a really syrupy finish — by the end of the film, I really didn’t care about anyone; the whole thing seemed like an animated waxworks, and little more.