Divorced, on the north side of her 50s and living alone, Gloria Bell sings along to sad disco songs when she drives to work, and at night, sometimes she goes dancing at a local singles bar. Flawed, funny and played by a luminescent Julianne Moore with oversized glasses and an infectious giggle, she’s the kind of character we seldom see at the movies anymore.
In today’s Hollywood, women of a certain age too often find themselves infantilized in sitcom-y garbage like last year’s “Book Club” — which featured four of a generation’s finest actresses pulling faces and making dirty grandma jokes that wouldn’t pass muster on a “Golden Girls” rerun. Director Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria Bell” is a blessedly more dignified affair, genuinely interested in growing older gracefully and attuned to an everyday loneliness that for a lot of folks is just a fact of life.
A nearly shot-for-shot remake of the Chilean filmmaker’s 2014 arthouse hit “Gloria,” the movie gives Moore her most rewarding role in years as an irrepressible spirit doing her best to muddle through one disappointment after the next. Her kids (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius) are grown and awfully busy with their own lives, not always prompt about returning their mom’s long, rambling voicemail messages. She works at an insurance company, takes yoga classes and when she gets home in the evening, neither Gloria nor the filmmaker wallow too much in the gentle melancholy of her empty apartment.
One night out dancing, she meets Arnold, a somewhat dashing ex-Marine played by John Turturro, and the two soon begin to negotiate a quite beguiling little affair. He’s only been divorced for a year while she’s been on her own for a dozen, so there are expectations to be managed and routines disrupted. I’ve always found romances between older characters far richer to watch than young lovers, as they simultaneously have more to lose yet also enough wisdom to understand a little heartbreak isn’t the end of the world.
It’s a kick to see Turturro cast against type, playing a plausible romantic lead instead of one of his usual bug-eyed freaks. He and Moore have killer chemistry and the film is refreshingly matter-of-fact about their sex life in ways American movies stopped being 20 years ago. (It’s telling though that the naughty bits are still toned down significantly from the Chilean original, in which both stars went full-frontal.)
The problem is that a relationship requires two people to be on the same page and Arnold is a few chapters behind. He’s as cagey as she is adorably open, almost immediately falling into a pattern of abruptly taking off whenever things get too real and then contritely re-appearing a few days later after realizing he’s made a mistake. Arnold calls on the phone an awful lot, and the movie ultimately becomes about Gloria learning she doesn’t have to answer. Leave him hanging on the line.
Despite being an almost word-for-word translation of the previous picture (Alice Johnson Boher shares a screenplay credit here with Lelio, who penned the original with Gonzalo Maza), this American remake somehow feels lighter and sunnier than its predecessor. A lot of that has to do with the hazy California skies and soft neon pinks of Natasha Braier’s sumptuous cinematography. But it’s also Moore’s radiance in the role, lacking the rough edges of Paulina García’s performance in the 2014 film and imbued with a more indomitable aura.
This is key, as in films like last year’s “Disobedience” or his Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman,” Lelio has a penchant for heaping misery upon his protagonists that can get a mite oppressive. “Gloria Bell” survives some of his more unfortunate flourishes during its second hour because Moore brings a hard-won perspective that comes with time. Lord knows Gloria’s had her heart broken before and almost certainly will again. But in the rousing final shot, we see she can do just as well out there on the dance floor by herself.
This isn’t a movie of large ambitions or self-important themes. It’s just about life, and how it goes on.