If you've ever stared into the Stepford-blank visage of a beauty-pageant competitor—with its frozen, unyielding smile—you may have some idea of what to expect from Gray Matters. Some, faced with that manic grin, want to run screaming, while others break down and submit moonily to its goofiness. In this instance, at least, I won't judge, for Gray Matters is a romantic-comedy assault with enough pleasant idiosyncracy to merit a pass for those in the proper mood.
With '40s-inspired dance numbers (to "Cheek to Cheek" and "I Won't Dance") and caffeinated dialogue that's old-fashioned by way of new fashion (think Gilmore Girls), writer-director Sue Kramer starts with a leg up in her campaign for film lovers. Unfortunately, Kramer's narrative skills are more reminiscent of a '90s sitcom: say, Ellen if it had Will and Grace's penchant for guest stars (Alan Cumming, as a heterosexual cabbie, and Gloria Gaynor, as herself, do the honors).
Heather Graham stars as New York ad exec Gray—hence, the unwieldy title. Romantically frustrated, Gray sees herself as "closed for repairs." Kramer superficially parallels her sexual confusion with indecisiveness about dinner and wine choices, which later changes to a craving for odd taste combinations. But when Graham cuts through the flightiness, she succeeds in giving the material some emotional resonance.
Gray and her brother Sam (Tom Cavanaugh of Ed) are so tight that they're often mistaken as a married couple. Their co-dependence falters when a three-wheel date with a hot zoologist named Charlie (Bridget Moynahan) leads Sam to pop the question. One problem: Gray, too, loves Charlie, a point driven home after the two women sing "I Will Survive" with Gaynor, then drunkenly lock lips in a honeymoon suite the night before Sam and Charlie's wedding.
Despite the imprimatur of executive producer Alexander Payne, Gray Matters only occasionally gets a footing in reality—an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the love triangle helps. By way of compensation, Moynahan prances in skimpy undies (or less), but few scenes and lines are memorable for their wit and intelligence (Graham and Cavanaugh's pace and energy give the lines some snap). The contrapuntal casting of Cumming proves memorable in the wrong way, when the cabbie's bizarre relationship with Gray climaxes with the actor in drag in a lesbian-only bar.
Having learned the filmmaker's lesson of "location, location, location," Kramer sends Cumming and Graham to the top of the New Yorker building, and sets Sissy Spacek's psychiatric sessions with Graham at a bowling alley and a climbing wall. As Gray's co-worker, funny woman Molly Shannon acts as if she's strung out on coke, though she has a feminist-"spewing" monologue that rousingly decries the female obligation to stay unnaturally slim and conventionally beautiful. But her words ring a bit hollow after all the shots of picture-perfect Graham and Moynahan's perky buns.
[For Groucho's interview with Heather Graham, click here.]