Polite society is so often impolite it’s a wonder it still retains rights to the description. Vacation retreats are not so much for relaxing as for allowing wealthy clans to catch up on old grudges, open old wounds. That is very much the case during the less-than-warm Last Weekend, which catches the Green family at its Lake Tahoe retreat and at its worst. Patricia Clarkson is Celia, the family matriarch and guiding force of the Greens; husband Malcolm (Chris Mulkey) barely makes an impression. Celia is a woman who has everything and nothing and is now in transition — from nowhere to nowhere is my guess.
The Greens are among San Francisco’s new rich, having founded a fitness empire, and for years they spent summers amid Lake Tahoe’s upscale naturalism. Their boys, Theo and Roger, have grown into adult disappointments, easily recognizable stereotypes with equally stereotypical networks of friends and relationships around them. Theo (Zachary Booth) is the artistic gay son who’s brought along a new boyfriend for the Labor Day forced march ordered by Celia. Luke (Devon Graye) is immediately made to feel uncomfortable, unworthy. The starlet Theo works with, Blake Curtis (Jayma Mays), is due to blow through later in the weekend. Roger (Joseph Cross) is the investment-banker son who’s sweating before the sun rises, having been fired due to a multimillion-dollar mistake caught just before the weekend and trying to beat Dad to the business pages.
Vanessa (Alexia Rasmussen) is his girlfriend, an entrepreneurial type with a line of organically flavored water she’s hoping to press Celia and Malcolm into backing. Hector and Maria Castillo — Julio Oscar Mechoso and Julie Carmen, respectively — are the help. They take care of the Greens’ Lake Tahoe place inside and out. As Celia puts it, they’re “like family.” But they’re not. Even though Celia does the right thing when she’s pressed by circumstances, her heart really isn’t in it.
That’s the trouble really with the film. Directed by Tom Dolby and Tom Williams from Dolby’s screenplay, Celia’s heart really isn’t invested in much of anything. That makes it difficult for us to feel invested in Celia, a ripple effect that does not bode well for the film. All the possibilities of a richly drawn family squabble fade faster than the final days of summer. The film turns on what is apparently the biggest dilemma in Celia’s life: whether she and Malcolm should sell their vacation house. It is prime property, bucolic and beautifully captured by director of photography Paula Huidobro. When the boys find out the house may be on the market, there is some minor outrage, but the “why” of it — the Greens don’t need the money — is left unanswered. Friends and neighbors pop in and out, bringing their own personal issues, but they serve as scenery rather than substance. Inconsequential though it may be, there is a good deal going on under the Greens’ roof. Both sons have relationship tensions.
Theo’s is slightly more compelling only because Graye makes Luke into someone with a few extra emotional layers, the insecurities visible in every downward, self-deprecating glance Graye takes. Celia is dismissive of the young man until she overhears him singing in the shower. It’s opera, and exquisite, and the fact that it is a high art, not the low she’d been expecting of Luke, changes her opinion of him. Such is the vacuous precipice the filmmakers have perched Celia on. When a real tragedy strikes, she glides through it, like the other days, mostly unruffled. What strikes with as much force as the lightning storm that briefly disrupts the weekend is that Clarkson, a consistently fine actress with an Oscar nomination for Pieces of April, is given no depths to plumb.
Celia lives a remarkably nonessential life, framed more by the vacation photos that line the walls and the tchotchkes she collects than anything human, including her sons. The actress’ signature ability to convey complicated lives in turmoil underneath a tranquil surface is left untapped. It is hard not to feel Last Weekend‘s emptiness in the wake.
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Zachary Booth, Rutina Wesley, Joseph Cross.
Directors: Tom Dolby, Tom Williams.
Screenwriter: Tom Dolby.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 94 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Cosford Cinema, Tower.