In Cleveland, 1967, cute-as-can-be Bobby Morrow (Andrew Chalmers as a nine-year-old) comes to self-consciousness with the help of his brother Carlton (Ryan Donowho). Or maybe more precisely, he comes to realize the world is a wildly beautiful and unpredictable place. Here he as likely to view his first sex scene (via Carlton’s unlocked door: “It’s just love, man, it’s nothing to fear”) as to have his mind expanded (via Carlton’s LSD) or his heart broken (via an unexpected and quite brutal death). Wide-eyed and apparently cherubic (his favorite grave marker in the local cemetery is the angel), the child absorbs his lessons serenely, a proverbial blank screen onto which you’re invited to project your own desires.
Unfortunately, Bobby’s vagueness tends to be more tiresome than inspiring. This despite the fact that, after a few scenes as a 15-year-old (played by Erik Smith), he grows up to be Colin Farrell, whose full frontal has already-famously been cut from the finished film (“Too distracting” is the filmmakers’ reported rationale). And, aside from this bit of promotional detail, A Home at the End of the World, written by Michael (The Hours) Cunningham from his novel, is doesn’t have so much to frame its central character. The movie doesn’t quite translate the book’s lyrical internal monologues to embodied characters. Bobby’s naïveté grants him a blithe ignorance of anything outside his narrow existence, everyone around him admires, resents, adores, resent and lusts after him, usually all at once. As complicated and intriguing as such a range of responses might sound, A Home at the End of the World, directed by Michael Mayer, doesn’t provide much in the way of motivation for any of them. Why do all Bobby’s acquaintances (okay, three characters) fall all over themselves to be in love with him?
First, there’s the hair. Yes, nine-year-old Bobby’s long, banged mop is, perhaps, initially a consequence of its time, that fleeting moment just before 1968, before history seemed to collapse all over the U.S. self-image. But it’s a corny do (think: Eddie Van Halen meets the Beatles meets Prince Valiant) that suggests his stagnation. Though punctuated by instances of grief and yearning, Bobby’s self-formation remains metaphorically frozen in that instant: he will live his life as a lovely, generous, optimistic entity, as free of angst and regret as, oh, say, Forrest Gump (more on this likeness later).
Bobby retains the bad wig as a 15-year-old, when he meets his first, best, lifelong friend, classmate Jonathan (Harris Allan, who grows up to be played by Dallas Roberts). As Bobby’s father is abusive and self-destructive, the boy spends a lot of time with Jonathan and his parents, mom Alice (Sissy Spacek) and Ned (Matt Frewer). When, predictably, Bobby is orphaned, he frets that his legacy is at risk (“I’m like, the last of my kind,” he murmurs, his version of fretting). Though Jonathan is quite smitten with Bobby (they engage in affectionate mutual jerking off), and so, willing to put up with his seemingly unconscious horning in (Bobby invites Alice to smoke dope with them, not a little unnerving for her son), the boys’ relationship is fraught from the start.
Jonathan misreads Bobby’s desire to please as a genuine interest in a romantic relationship, and Bobby is singularly unable to gauge or maintain boundaries. While admirable in the abstract, this inability has emotional consequences for those who are better trained in social conventions: after Jonathan moves away to New York City, his parents are forced to tell Bobby that he can’t move with them to Phoenix, that he needs his own life. Bobby doesn’t quite get that last part, though, as he calls Jonathan and, just like that, moves into his East Village flat, circa 1982.
Arriving on Jonathan’s doorstep, Bobby meets his roommate, Clare (Robin Wright Penn, also figuring into this film’s bland Gumpness), whose “eccentricity” is indicated by her first appearance—half her face is done up in a broadly theatrical “Japanese” style and she’s dyed her hair bright red. That night, the hosts take Bobby out dancing, whereupon he discovers the wonders of stereotypical movie punk, at a club identified as such by the dancers’ multicolored Mohawks.
Though Clare insists that she’s “always been in love” with Jonathan, their relationship is so barely sketched that it’s hard to guess how or why. The reasons for Bobby and Clare’s instant friendship might seem more obvious (thank god, she convinces him to cut it into a proper Colin-Farrelly scruff, at which point you begin to believe that the film might right itself), but their recklessness with regard to Jonathan’s response is odd, at least. Again and again, the film trots out Bobby’s charming ingenuousness as the rationale for anyone’s carelessness, but the connections are at once too ordinary and too loose.
Clare and Bobby’s blossoming romance makes Jonathan feel—yet again—overshadowed by the love of his life (that would be Bobby, if you’re keeping track). More stuff happens: Clare becomes pregnant with Bobby’s child, Jonathan dates many young men, Jonathan leaves Bobby and Clare, Jonathan’s dad dies. At this point, the threesome rearranges again, buying a farmhouse outside Woodstock (Clare having fond memories of the festival), and the young men start a business, the Home Café (years back, Alice spent a sensual but not sexual evening with Bobby, showing him how to bake), which makes Clare wonder how come she’s stuck at home.
These events form a general chronology of Bobby, Jonathan, and Clare’s relationship(s), but as they unravel, reravel, and eventually dissolve on screen, you’re less and less inclined to care what happens next. On one hand, this is because what happens next is unsurprising (Jonathan pays the expected tragic price for his NYC nights out, Clare eventually plays out her Gump girl role). But on another hand, it’s because any caring would begin with Bobby, and he remains less mesmeric than blank.