The Sum of Us

A Film Review by James Berardinelli

[RATING (0 to 10): 8.0]

U.S. Availability: limited release Spring 1995
Running Length: 1:40
MPAA Classification: No Rating (Mature themes, language)

Starring: Jack Thompson, Russell Crowe, John Polson, Deborah Kennedy
Directors: Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling
Producer: Hal McElroy
Screenplay: David Stevens based on his play
Cinematography: Geoff Burton
Music: David Faulkner
Released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Love is perhaps the most common theme explored by movies. It is also the most frequently misrepresented. Many Hollywood love affairs end up heavily over-romanticized, and the picture they paint is invariably far from reality. So it's refreshing to find a film like The Sum of Us, which is about love in all its genuine forms: sexual (both gay and straight), platonic, and most important, familial. Given the honesty of the script, it should come as no surprise that America's film industry had nothing to do with the movie -- this is yet another gem from Australia.

Not only are Harry (Jack Thompson) and Jeff (Russell Crowe) father and son, but they're best friends as well. Their relationship is relaxed and comfortable -- they banter and kid around and, though they occasionally get under each other's skin, there's never any acrimony in their arguments. Harry is aware of his son's homosexual preferences and accepts them unquestioningly. The only thing he has to say on the subject is that he's disappointed Jeff will never have an opportunity to father a child. With so many dysfunctional family stories around, The Sum of Us serves as the perfect antidote.

Despite his good looks and outgoing personality, Jeff is actually somewhat shy, as becomes obvious when he's getting to know Greg (John Polson), a man he meets at a local gay pub. Greg is no more certain of himself than Jeff, and it's only after a lot of nervous conversation that the pair arrive at Jeff's home. No sooner have the two dimmed the lights, however, than Harry wanders into the room to greet his son's prospective lover, unintentionally but effectively dispelling the romantic atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Harry, who has been a widower for a number of years, is looking for female companionship. To that end, he enrolls in Desiree's Introduction Agency, and is set up with a middle-aged woman named Joyce (Deborah Kennedy). The two hit it off almost immediately, but, while both are interested in pursuing a serious relationship, it's unclear exactly how far each is willing to go.

The Sum of Us is delightful, by turns droll and serious. Yet even during its most dramatic moments, it retains a lighthearted tone that keeps things from becoming too grim. There's always a joke right around the corner, and none of the humor seems ill-suited to the situation. Writer David Stevens has a near-perfect sense of his characters, and they're the sort of people it's a pleasure to get to know. Strong, unaffected performances by leads Jack Thompson (who bears a resemblance to the American sit-com actor Jerry Van Dyke) and Russell Crowe (Proof, The Quick and the Dead) emphasize our sense of Harry and Jeff as normal, everyday people.

There is no "fourth wall" in The Sum of Us. The characters frequently turn to the camera -- sometimes right in the middle of a conversation with each other -- and address a sentence or two to the audience. The words are spoken with such easy familiarity that this particular device is almost always more effective than gimmicky.

The Sum of Us isn't exactly cutting-edge, but it takes a few chances (or what might be perceived as chances by an American viewing audience). Jeff's homosexuality is a complete non- issue. There's nothing political or tragic in his situation. In fact, he and the other characters frequently joke about it. Also, no compromises are made to give the conclusion an extra lift, proving it's possible to have a happy ending without undermining the story's intelligence. It's production elements like this that make The Sum of Us such a worthwhile examination of what love is like for those whose lives don't follow traditional movie scripts.

1995 James Berardinelli