‘Keep the Lights On’: Unilluminating

September 6, 2012

Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On” starts with a credit montage of bad paintings. The fact that they’re all homoerotic in content has nothing to do with their quality, which is amateurish.

His protagonist, Erik (Thure Lindhardt), is first seen cruising gay-sex phone chatlines looking for company. He finds it, has sex and then goes about his business. But he’s a regular on the phone, describing himself to prospective partners as masculine and well-built (he’s actually a little soft-looking, though not overweight).

We gradually learn that, aside from seeking regular hook-ups, Erik is a Danish émigré and a would-be filmmaker, living in New York, apparently on the generosity of his parents (according to his disapproving sister, played by Paprika Steen). He’s been working on a documentary for a couple of years about Avery Willard, a gay pioneer of the 1950s’ New York film scene, and has turned down the chance to work for PBS because it would be too boring.

Then he meets Paul (Zachary Booth) and falls – hard. He not only lures Paul away from a girlfriend – he winds up moving in with him. Paul seems like a stable, well-adjusted partner, an attorney with a solid job. Just one small problem: He occasionally smokes crack.

Occasionally, however, turns into what it always turns into: full-blown addiction, with all of the side dishes that go with it – disappearances, unreliability, lying, even theft. Suddenly Erik finds himself as the responsible one in a relationship where one of the partners is regularly on the conveyor belt to rehab.

That’s an interesting take on a love-vs.-addiction story, though not interesting enough to sustain “Keep the Lights On.” While Erik seems to settle into his relationship with Paul, he never really changes or has any sort of realization – other than figuring out that Paul is hooked on something he doesn’t have the strength or genes to fight.

And Sachs’ use of a gay relationship doesn’t cast any particular new light on the subject of addiction, nor does addiction offer new insight into gay relationships. It’s ultimately a story of one partner who is stronger than the other – and unable to do anything to help his weaker lover.

Lindhardt isn’t a particularly expressive actor and Booth, so good as Glenn Close’s chilly, manipulative son on “Damages,” is supposed to be remote and secretive. Julianne Nicholson turns up as Erik’s work partner, who talks about wanting Erik to impregnate her. But, aside from scenes of Nicholson and other friends cautioning Erik against putting too much faith in Paul, there are few sparks to almost any part of this film.

Yes, “Keep the Lights On” amply explores the pain of a solid relationship torn apart by addiction. But so have a lot of films. The subject is intrinsically tragic; Sachs’ film can’t illuminate it beyond that.

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