Review: ‘May December,’ starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore

January 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in “May December” (Photo by Francois Duhamel/Netflix)

“May December”

Directed by Todd Haynes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tybee Island, Georgia, in 2015, the dramatic film “May December” features a white and Asian cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous actress is starring in a movie about a disgraced and formerly imprisoned sex offender, who seduced an underage co-worker and later married him, and the actress goes to the couple’s home to do research for the role.

Culture Audience: “May December” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Todd Haynes, and movies that put a fictional spin on real-life scandals.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in “May December” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“May December” is a very glossy psychological portrait of manipulation and exploitation, inspired by a real-life sex scandal. Although the principal cast members give above-average performances, it’s a slow-moving film with a fragmented story. Some viewers might see “May December” as a very dark comedy. However, the movie’s few comedic moments are in short spurts and then quickly fade into the background when “May December” becomes more concerned about making viewers increasingly uncomfortable with certain awful characters pretending to be better people than they really are.

Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Samy Burch, “May December” gets its title from the term “May December relationship,” to describe romances that have a big age gap between the partners. The younger partner is supposed to be in the spring of youth (as exemplified by the spring month of May), while the older partner is supposed to be closer to the end of life (as indicated by end-of-the-year month of December). “May December” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In “May December,” the story’s scandal is based on the real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. In 1996, the year they got sexually involved with each other, Letourneau was a 34-year-old married mother of four children, and she was Fulaau’s schoolteacher in Burien, Washington. He was 12 years old.

Letourneau eventually served time in jail (in 1997) and in prison (from 1998 to 2004) for statutory rape and for violating the terms of her 1997 plea agreement, which had required her to stay away from a then-underage Fualaau. Her first husband divorced her in 1999. She gave birth to two daughters fathered by Fualaau. The first daughter was born in 1997, while Letourneau was awaiting her sentencing. The second daughter was born in 1998, when Letourneau was in prison. Letourneau and Fualaau got married in 2005, but they separated in 2019. Letourneau died of colorectal cancer in 2020, at the age of 58.

All of this background information is helpful to better understand the nuances in “May December.” In the movie, the character based on Letourneau is named Gracie Atherton-Yoo (played by Julianne Moore), while the Fualaau-based character is Joe Yoo (played by Charles Melton), who are living a quiet suburban life together as married parents in Tybee Island, Georgia. Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman) is a 36-year-old famous actress who is starring as Gracie in a made-for-TV movie. “May December” (which takes place in 2015, which is about 23 years after the scandal) shows what happens over the course of several days when Elizabeth goes to Tybee Island to do research for the role by visiting Gracie and Joe, as well as interviewing their friends, family and other people who know this notorious couple.

“May December” begins with a scene of Elizabeth in a Georgia hotel room as she gets ready to go to the Yoo home to meet Gracie and Joe for the first time. Meanwhile, Gracie and Joe are at their home, where they are preparing to welcome Elizabeth to a family cookout in their backyard. Gracie is in the kitchen making deviled eggs and a cake with her friend/neighbor Rhonda (played by Andrea Frankle), who is Gracie’s staunchest defender and supporter. It’s later revealed that Gracie has a home-based business where she makes cakes. Joe works in a hospital as a medical assistant.

Before Elizabeth arrives, Gracie tells Rhonda what she expects from Elizabeth: “All I ask is that she’s polite and not just sitting there with her sunglasses on.” And when Elizabeth and Gracie meet in a polite but slightly guarded way, Gracie tells Elizabeth: “I want you to tell the story right.” Elizabeth, who speaks in calm, measured tones, replies: “I want you to feel seen and known.”

In real life, Letourneau and Fualaau had two daughters. In “May December,” Gracie and Joe have two daughters and a son. Eldest child Honor (played by Piper Curda) is an outspoken college student living away from home, but she will soon be visiting to attend the high-school graduation of her younger twin siblings: insecure Mary (played by Elizabeth Yu) and rebellious Charlie (played by Gabriel Chun). Another member of the Yoo family is Joe’s widower father Joe Yoo Sr. (played by Kelvin Han Yee), a Korean immigrant who—just like his son Joe—chain smokes when he’s feeling stressed-out.

Over time, viewers see that Gracie likes to appear composed and in control in public and when Elizabeth is there observing. But in private and when Elizabeth isn’t there, Gracie is high-strung, very demanding and overly critical of other people. When things don’t go her way, Gracie loves to play the victim.

Gracie also treats Joe as someone whose only purpose in life is to make her happy. When Gracie has a tearful meltdown because a customer canceled an order for a cake that Gracie already made, Gracie expects Joe to comfort her like someone who needs to be comforted over the death of a loved one. And there are signs that Gracie has an undiagnosed mental illness, such as when Gracie insists to Joe in private that he was the one who seduced her when he was a child.

Another scene that shows how Gracie is a master manipulator is when she and Mary (with Elizabeth invited to observe) go shopping for Mary’s graduation dress. At a store’s dressing room, Mary tries on dresses. Mary’s first choice is a sleeveless dress, but Gracie doesn’t want Mary to wear a dress that will expose Mary’s arms. Mary gets annoyed with Gracie and firmly says that she’s getting the dress. However, Mary changes her mind when Gracie comments that other girls in the graduating class probably won’t wear sleeveless dresses because sleeveless dresses will make their arms look fat.

Over time, an unspoken rivalry develops between Gracie and Elizabeth, who is very aware that image-conscious Gracie is bothered by Elizabeth, who is going to play a younger version of Gracie. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes about this power struggle is when Elizabeth and Gracie are standing in front of a bathroom mirror in Gracie’s home while Gracie is putting on makeup. Rather than have Elizabeth mimic her, Gracie insists on putting the makeup on Elizabeth herself.

Joe is quiet, humble and unassuming. And at first, he seems to be in the background of Elizabeth’s thoughts as she puts most of her initial focus on studying Gracie. It should come as no surprise that the more that Gracie gushes about Joe to make it sound like they have a beautiful love story, the more that Elizabeth seems to get curious about Joe and takes more of an interest in him. Elizabeth flatters Joe and drops hints that he deserves a better life than the one that he has with control-freak Gracie. But does Elizabeth really care about Joe as a person, or does Elizaebth care more about immersing herself so much into Gracie’s life that she wants to replicate aspects of Gracie’s life?

Some of the people whom Elizabeth interviews for her research are Gracie’s ex-husband Tom Atherton (played by D.W. Moffett), who is now married to another woman; Gracie’s adult son Georgie Atherton (played by Cory Michael Smith), from her first marriage, who bitterly tells Elizabeth that Gracie ruined Georgie’s life; and Colin Henderson (played by Charles Green), the owner of the pet store where Joe worked as a kid and where Gracie was Joe’s supervisor. Observant viewers will notice that for all the interviews that Elizabeth does, she’s not very forthcoming about herself, until a very revealing scene where she makes a speaking appearance in Mary’s drama class and answers prying questions from a few of the students.

No one from Elizabeth’s personal life is seen in the movie, which is the movie’s way of showing how Elizabeth skillfully compartmentalizes her life. Elizabeth is shown briefly talking in phone conversations at her hotel with her fiancé and with the director of the movie where she stars as Gracie. In these conversations, she reveals herself even more to be a very driven and ambitious actress.

Elizabeth is also seen in the hotel room looking at video auditions of teenage boys who will be playing the role of Joe. These boys are supposed to be in their early teens, but Elizabeth remarks that they don’t look “sexy” enough, based on what Elizabeth has seen of Joe. But it’s a sign of a reality disconnect for Elizabeth, because the Joe she’s getting to know is an adult, not the child who was manipulated into an illegal sexual relationship with an adult.

“May December” presents Elizabeth as the central character, but the movie doesn’t always do a great job of balancing the perspectives of Gracie and Joe. There is almost nothing told about how Joe’s side of the family reacted to the scandal, or how Joe’s experiences as a child of an immigrant affected his outlook on life. His father seems to have accepted the marriage of Joe and Gracie, but was this acceptance easy, difficult, or somewhere in between? The movie never says and doesn’t seem to care.

Joe is only given two or three really good scenes that show he’s more than just a loyal “boy toy” husband. Those scenes arrive when awareness starts to sink in with Joe about how much of his childhood was robbed when Gracie chose to cross the line and have a sexual relationship with him when he was a child. It hits him the hardest when he sees Mary and Charlie graduating from high school. This graduation ceremony scene is when Joe fully understands that his children’s coming of age and starting new chapters in their lives as young adults are very different from what he experienced.

What “May December” also does very well is show how Elizabeth’s presence is the catalyst for Gracie and Joe to re-evaluate how they want to be perceived by others and how they perceive themselves. Gracie’s reaction is to “double down” on the narrative that she and Joe have a “fairytale love story.” Joe starts to have doubts and wonders if this “fairytale love story” he’s believed in for all these years was one big lie.

Meanwhile, on another level, “May December” is also a story about what happens when two predators meet and become competitive with each other—not just in how to interpret Gracie’s life but also in trying to prove who’s living a more “fulfilled” life. In that regard, the scenes where Elizabeth and Gracie are in the same room are fascinating to watch. Observant viewers will notice that Elizabeth’s “research” has a more profound effect on her than Elizabeth expects. This is demonstrated effectively in the movie’s final scene.

Portman and Moore are compelling to watch in “May December,” but the movie loses a bit of steam when it can’t really decide how much importance Gracie’s children and in-laws should have in the story. It’s never explained why Elizabeth talked to only one of Gracie’s children from Gracie’s first marriage and not the other children from Gracie’s first marriage. And the character of Joe Sr. seems like a “token” character, because the movie doesn’t seem concerned about how showing or telling how Gracie’s scandalous actions with Joe affected members of Joe’s family.

If “May December” is supposed to be a dark comedy, then it doesn’t quite succeed as a dark comedy or satire like director Gus Van Sant’s 1995 movie “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. “To Die For” succeeded in its comedic intentions as a movie version of a real-life scandal about an adult female teacher seducing an underage teenage student to commit a felony crime. As a psychological drama, “May December” excels in its intention to be an unsettling film about the human cost of treating people like pawns in a chess game.

Netflix released “May December” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Bad Boys for Life,’ starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys for Life"
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life”

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Culture Representation: Set in Miami and Mexico City, this male-centric action-adventure movie has a racially diverse cast of African American, Latino, white and Asian actors.

Culture Clash: “Bad Boys for Life” is a story of law enforcement versus ruthless criminals.

Culture Audience: “Bad Boys for Life” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Bad Boys” franchise and Will Smith admirers, but the movie’s superior quality to the previous two “Bad Boys” films could attract many new fans to the franchise.

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, has accomplished something most franchise movies haven’t been able to do—make the third film in the series the best one so far. Michael Bay, who directed the first two “Bad Boys” movies—1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II”—is no longer at the helm at the franchise, although he does make a cameo as a wedding emcee in “Bad Boys for Life.” And because Bay is no longer the director in charge of the “Bad Boys” franchise, the homophobic and racist jokes are gone, as well as the voyeuristic camera-angle shots that objectify the private parts of scantily clad women.

The directors of “Bad Boys for Life” are Moroccan-born Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who previously directed indie films and episodes of FX’s crime-drama series “Snowfall,” before making their major-studio film debut with “Bad Boys for Life.” Smith, Jerry Bruckheimer and the other producers of “Bad Boy for Life” made the wise choice of hiring directors who’ve injected some new blood into this intermittent movie series. With “Bad Boys for Life,” there’s also a new team of screenwriters to the franchise: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, who flip the script with some surprising twists. And here’s another refreshing aspect of “Bad Boys for Life”: The best parts of the movie aren’t in the trailers. In fact, the trailers make the movie look very predictable when the film really isn’t.

Make no mistake: The gun fights, car chases and machismo that people love about the “Bad Boys” franchise are all still there. So too is the crackling energy between Miami cop partners Mike Lowery (played by Smith) and Marcus Burnett (played by Lawrence), who are bickering opposites as much as they are loyal best friends. And the characters still reference Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” reggae song, which was also made famous as the theme song to the reality show “Cops.” Another familiar “Bad Boys” movie trope that’s still part of the franchise is the 360-degree slow-motion shot of Mike and Marcus standing up after a moment of despair. But even with all of these repeat characteristics, “Bad Boys II” was such an inferior, bloated mess that the only way for to go was up for any subsequent “Bad Boys” movie.

The first two “Bad Boys” films followed the cliché formula of cops versus drug dealers. They also had a token female supporting character as “a damsel in distress” type who wanted to be perceived as a strong woman, but was really someone being protected by Mike and Marcus. (In “Bad Boys,” the token female sidekick was Téa Leoni, who played a witness to a murder. In “Bad Boys II,” Gabrielle Union played Marcus’ younger sister, who was an undercover cop that Marcus and Mike still had to rescue.)

Instead of a “war against drugs” storyline, “Bad Boys for Life” veers in another direction, by having a young sharpshooter assassin named Armando Aretas (played by Jacob Scipio) on a revenge mission. Armando takes orders from his domineering and evil mother, Isabel Aretas (played by Kate Del Castillo), who’s in Mexico City while Armando is in Miami killing off law-enforcement people. Isabel’s husband was a drug lord, and she blames his death on people who are on the hit list. Viewers see in the beginning of the film that Mike is on the Aretas’ hit list, and Isabel (a femme fatale who’s into the occult) wants his execution to be saved for last.

Meanwhile, much of this sequel acknowledges how many years have passed between the second and third “Bad Boys” films, because there are constant references to how aging has affected Mike and Marcus. In the film’s opening scene, Marcus becomes a grandfather, when his daughter, Megan (played by Bianca Bethune), has given birth to a son, whom she names after Marcus.

Mike is still a smooth-talking bachelor playboy who’s slept with at least a few of the women who show up in the “Bad Boys” movies. He’s an heir to a fortune, and he indulges in his taste for high-priced cars and clothes. (The first two movies make reference to Mike having a deceased rich father, but Mike’s other family members aren’t seen or mentioned.) Mike isn’t the marrying type because he’s a workaholic whose entire identity is wrapped up in being at the top of his game as a police officer.

By contrast, Marcus is a married father who comes from a working-class background, and he’s always threatening to quit the police force. Marcus and his long-suffering wife, Theresa (played by Theresa Randle), had two sons and a daughter in the first “Bad Boys” movies, but only their daughter is seen in “Bad Boys for Life.” However, Joe Pantoliano has returned as Captain Howard, the immediate supervisor of Mike and Marcus, who still spends a great deal of time yelling at them for causing expensive chaos every time that Mike and Marcus chase criminals.

Even though Mike and Marcus have gotten older, they still have the same quirks. Mike is still a materialistic neat freak who loses his temper if any of his prized possessions gets dirty. Marcus is still the queasier and more sensitive of the two cops (his inclination to gag and possibly vomit at a crime scene is a running joke in all of the movies), and he’s the more spiritually minded partner who uses therapy and religion to deal with his stress. Marcus’ religious beliefs play a key role in a plot twist that keeps Mike and Marcus apart for about one-third of the movie.

“Bad Boys for Life” also shows more women in positions of power at the Miami Police Department than in the previous “Bad Boys” movies. One of them is Rita (played by Paola Núñez), the no-nonsense leader of a newly formed elite Miami PD intelligence team called Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO), which uses a lot of highly advanced technology in their surveillance. Rita is a former flame of Mike’s, and she resents having to work closely with him again. Mike and Rita’s strained interactions with each other make it clear that their romantic relationship ended badly—and they’re not completely over each other.

Also on the AMMO team are weapons specialist Kelly (played by Vanessa Hudgens), who idolizes Mike; laid-back computer whiz Dorn (played by Alexander Ludwig), who’s got brawn to match his brains; and smart-ass former DEA agent Rafe (played by Charles Melton), who often clashes with Mike. All of these extremely good-looking people on the AMMO team look more like models than real police officers, but who said a movie like this had to be 100% realistic?

“Bad Boys for Life” still has some cliché moments, such as the ultra-violent scenes where people seem to have superhero stunt powers, the obligatory Miami nightclub scene filled with beautiful people, and the inevitable fire/explosion scenes where the heroes don’t get burned. And the movie has plenty of comedic moments, some better than others.

However, “Bad Boys for Life” adds emotional gravitas that wasn’t seen in the previous “Bad Boys” films. The very real and tragic consequences of murder are acknowledged in more depth. Mike and Marcus also come to grips with being middle-aged, since they don’t feel as invincible as they did in their youth. (Although Mike is much more reluctant to admit it than Marcus is.)

As for the double-whammy Aretas villains, they’re the most dangerous out of all the “Bad Boys” villains so far, since their crime spree is motivated by hatred and revenge rather than by trying to protect a drug-dealing business. All of the actors do a competent job with what they’ve been given for their characters in this action film. Smith, in particular, adeptly handles the surprising change that Mike goes through toward the end of the film, which leaves no doubt that another “Bad Boys” sequel is in the works.

Columbia Pictures released “Bad Boys for Life” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.

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