Cute as a Button
Gray (Heather Graham) and Sam (Tom Cavanagh) first appear dancing to “Cheek to Cheek.” They seem perfectly suited to one another—their steps in time, their faces lit up with smiles—and when the number ends and a crowd of dance class members applaud enthusiastically, you might wonder whether you’ve walked in on the last reel of Gray Matters rather than the first.
But no, you still have some 90 minutes to endure, as Gray and Sam work through an increasingly fraught romance, complicated in the first place by the fact that they’re brother and sister. That’s not to say that they are incestuous, only that their coupledom appears ideal in every way: they live together in an impossibly sweet NYC apartment, share a love for Chinese takeout and 1940s films, and, as Gray puts it, “rarely spend two minutes apart.” He’s a surgeon and she’s in advertising, designing campaigns for sportswear lines.
Apparently Sam’s career keeps him busy enough that, following the first few scenes, he spends much of the film off-screen, as Gray sorts out her “matters.” To this end, she has the usual sort of rom-com help, embodied first by her big-mouthed coworker, Carrie (Molly Shannon), who complains about her husband’s demands that she lose weight and keeps current with office gossip, her observations (concerning, say, the boss’ secretary: “Do you think she does more than just type?”) as uninteresting as Gray’s blank-faced, behind-the-beat reactions suggest they are.
Gray is a little more energetic during her sessions with Dr. Sydney (Sissy Spacek), who insists that they meet at “different locations” (a bowling alley, a fake rock climbing wall), ostensibly to jog loose new insights. Gray, however, finds a metaphor she likes and doesn’t deviate much afterwards: she’s a “charming hotel, beautifully romantic on the outside,” but closed for repairs. The doctor says, “I think you need to let the idea of sharing your life with someone other than your brother enter your consciousness.” No kidding.
This idea makes its entrance in the form of Charlie (Bridget Moynahan), met cute by both Sam and Gray in the park with dogs. Charlie is lovely, vaguely clever, and keeps up in the siblings’ “best food movie” listing contest (Babette’s Feast, yes, but also Fatal Attraction). She’s also “not afraid to eat a hot fudge sundae,” a prereq for perfect-girlness for Sam, which means that after a single evening, she and Sam have decided they’re meant for one another, planning a wedding in Vegas for the coming weekend. Gray’s less than enthusiastic (“She could be an axe murderer for all you know”), but goes along on a wedding-dress fitting montage and a girls’ night out before the big day. They drink (“Let’s get toasted!”) and perform with Gloria Gaynor—the real Gloria Gaynor—on a lounge stage, belting feebly about how they’re survivors, hey hey.
At this point Sue Kramer’s first feature drops its other shoe, namely that Gray also falls in love with Charlie after one date. Because Charlie is so very drunk, however, she has no memory of their passionate, big-music, life-changing kiss, and so Gray is left more or less alone to cope with a new concept: she’s not in love with her brother or even straight. She is, in fact, gay. Or, as she tries to explain it to the non-comprehending Charlie the next morning, “I feel subnatural, I feel like ET, I wanna phone home.”
Ouch. On top of such clunky dialogue, Gray Matters feels dated (Gray’s self-identity confusion is less “adorable” than annoying, and both she and Charlie appear exceptionally clueless about what’s going on) and poorly plotted (cuts from one scene to another occasionally seem random). It also calls up comparisons that do it no favors. When Gray and Charlie start dancing, inspired by Till the Clouds Roll By on a background TV, they look more strained than poised.
Though Dr. Sydney tries to encourage Gray to feel easier with this at-long-last realization, she’s suitably horrified when she learns the object of her first girl crush is her brother’s wife. “One day you think you’re one thing, and the next day, you’re something else,” wails Gray. Ah yes, this would be the fluidity of sexual identity: welcome to the 21st century. Her solution makes as little sense as the rest of the film: she decides to blind date with men, furiously (cue brief but tiresome montage of bad dates). Among her would-be suitors is a wise and wholly generous cabbie, Gordy (Alan Cumming, who can’t save the movie, but does make his scenes quite worthwhile). For some reason, he’s smitten with Gray (“You look as cute as a button”), who appears only as emotional wreckage whenever she hails his cab, and goes so far as to accompany her to a lesbian bar, in terrible drag that everyone in the bar goes along with because, apparently, he’s Alan Cumming.
He brings abundant charisma and intelligence to the proceedings, but Gray Matters throws Gray under a bus full generic clichés. “Thirty years ago,” she sighs, she could have “just moved away and joined a convent.” Gordy has a better idea, offering her a “wee bit of whiskey” and shortbread. At this point, you might be wishing the movie had made Gordy its focus, a lonely cabbie in search of non-schizzy love in Manhattan. But no.