Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven is a potent antidote to the Happy Days image of the 1950s. Even the title is ironic; it's a twist on All That Heaven Allows, a lush Technicolor melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk and released in 1955.
Far from Heaven is also a superbly crafted homage to moviemaking in that studiocentric decade - a time when Sirk could put Rock Hudson in a big plaid manly-man shirt and make us believe the lumberjack look was what all wealthy women of leisure craved between pedicures. (Actually, when you consider how long Hudson stayed closeted, Far from Heaven could also - in an odd, sad way - be a metaphor for his life.)
In the movie, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) has a perfect life - a handsome husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), a lovely home, two adorable kids, and dozens of wasp-waisted dresses with skirts the size of a VW Bug. She and Frank are so perfect, they've been dubbed Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech, after his up-and-coming company. Sure, Cathy is a little liberal - from her days in summer stock with those Jewish boys, teases a neighbor - but she plays by the rules of cushy suburbia. And looks great doing it.
There's only one shadow in her gloriously sunny life: Frank likes boys. When Frank's sexual preference comes out, Cathy is initially shocked. But then she does the right liberal-thinking thing: she sends him to a doctor who can, perhaps, God-willing, cure his homosexuality.
Even so, there are strains on the marriage. Frank becomes moody and depressed by his failure as an all-American male (to say nothing of his neutered sex life). Eventually, Cathy turns to her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert in full Rock attire), for comfort. This doesn't go unnoticed by the neighbors, even though just a few days earlier an admiring newspaper article had described Cathy as being "as devoted to her family as she is kind to Negroes."
The film has echoes of David Lynch's Blue Velvet in its theme of corruption underneath a smooth suburban surface. The period is meticulously re-created, from the salmon and powder-blue cars and the cheerful yellow maids' uniforms to French twists and steakhouses named Sammy's. Its replica of small-town Connecticut perfection is perfection itself - each autumn leaf seemingly handcrafted to an exquisite scarlet or gold, each drifting to earth at the precisely right moment. But here's what sets Far from Heaven apart from the work of John Waters and other pitch-perfect parodists: it's smirk-free. Moore and Quaid never give in to the lazy choice of commenting on their characters. There's still plenty to laugh about, but the stars' emotional honesty gives the movie its unique tone. Quaid understands the entitlement white males felt - and the shame of being gay in a time when such things weren't talked about. Moore embodies the graceful, supportive Good Wife, epitomized by June Cleaver in pearls, whose well-meant, timid attempts to be open-minded doom her.
By surrounding us with hyper-artificiality, Haynes makes us see familiar issues, like racism and homophobia, in a fresh way. What makes the movie simple is also what makes it bold. You don't know whether to wince or laugh when Frank's doctor patiently and compassionately explains that electroshock and hormonal rebalancing have been occasionally successful in curing homosexuality but that some cases are, well, incurable. And Raymond's rude awakening to the subtle hypocrisy of white-gloved liberalism is heartbreaking.
Far from Heaven can be slow, and viewers expecting something campier may be disappointed. But Haynes's beguiling mix of art and artifice pulls no punches, despite all the prettiness. He knows just how far from heaven some members of the Greatest Generation found the fifties to be.
Eleanor Ringel Gillespie is film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.