Lucky Michael Cunningham. First his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Hours" was impressively adapted for the screen two years ago. Now comes "A Home at the End of the World," an adaptation of another Cunningham book that, like "The Hours," comes with its own set of challenges, which director Michael Mayer handles forthrightly, with precise emotional pitch. Fans of "The Hours" should dispel expectations of dizzying time shifts and multiple story lines. But at the core of this simply told tale swirls a vortex of emotions and competing desires every bit as complicated as its predecessor's fancy narrative footwork.
Mayer, who makes his film directorial debut here, made his first smart move in enlisting three fine actors to portray the highly charged triangle of lovers and friends at the center of Cunningham's story, which spans three decades. Colin Farrell sets out to erase all thoughts of action heroes and off-screen high jinks as Bobby, a perennial Lost Boy whose experience of tragedy early in life has kept him in an arrested state of adolescent neediness. Robin Wright Penn plays Clare, a free-spirited young woman at loose ends in Manhattan in the 1980s. And newcomer Dallas Roberts plays Jonathan, Bobby's best friend since childhood and Clare's roommate in New York.
When Bobby suddenly moves in, Jonathan must confront long-simmering feelings -- both affectionate and hostile -- for the friend who was also a surrogate brother and even a nascent love interest while they were growing up. Meanwhile, Bobby befriends and ultimately falls in love with Clare, who herself has unresolved feelings for Jonathan. If the three come to see themselves as an unlikely family, it's tempting to call out to the screen and reassure them that it's okay, this is what family can look like.
At least it's what we desperately want it to look like, if only for Bobby's sake. As the vulnerable, seductive object of Clare and Jonathan's affections -- as well as those of Jonathan's mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), Farrell delivers a performance that departs from the fireworks he's become known for, even though at times he trembles so visibly that he looks chronically cold instead of emotionally overcome. Luckily, Penn and Roberts are more understated, giving their characters a pungent sense of authenticity. Penn, with her retro-chic bangs and clipped, percussive voice, is almost unrecognizable in a role that calls on her to be wildly uninhibited but ultimately a conformist at heart.
Mayer has also done a terrific job at evoking the 1960s, '70s and '80s in a story that spans eras that could potentially be summed up by easy visual punch lines. Indeed, two of the most memorable scenes of "A Home at the End of the World" come early in the film, before Farrell and company hit the screen, when Bobby's beloved brother Carlton meets a horrifying end at an almost decadent '60s cocktail party and, several years later, when Bobby and Jonathan turn Alice on to marijuana. Watching Spacek dance around the bedroom, slowly loosening up while Laura Nyro plays, is one of the joys of this cinematic season.
A Home at the End of the World (95 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated R for strong drug content, sexuality, nudity, profanity and a disturbing accident.