In A Home at the End of the World, Colin Farrell plays the man-child Bobby Morrow, but we first encounter Bobby at the age of 9, when he’s played by Andrew Chalmers. Young Bobby witnesses the accidental death of his beloved older brother in a freak accident: The teenager runs through a sliding glass door at a party and bleeds to death in his helpless parents’ arms.
We next see Bobby at 16 (Erik Smith) making friends with Jonathan Glover (Harris Allan), a gawky classmate. Bobby seems to be almost on his own; he tells Jonathan’s parents, Ned and Alice (Matt Frewer and Sissy Spacek), that his mother is dead and that his father has withdrawn into alcohol (both, we assume, from grief). When his father later dies, Bobby is virtually adopted by the Glovers. Ned and Alice regard him as a second son. At the same time, Jonathan and Bobby drift into sexual experimentation. In time, Jonathan will grow up to be openly gay, and Bobby’s sexuality will be more ambiguous; still, the bond between them will remain and will grow deeper.
When Ned and Alice move away to Arizona, Bobby, now 24, goes to New York to live with Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) and his roommate Clare (Robin Wright Penn), a flamboyant, East Village hat maker several years older than the two of them. In time, the three establish a hesitant triangle, with Jonathan and Clare at times feeling hurt and excluded and with Bobby in the middle trying to keep everybody happy.
The script for A Home at the End of the World is by Michael Cunningham (author of The Hours), based on his 1990 novel. I’m not familiar with the book, but I’ve read that it’s told in Bobby’s voice, with his inner monologues clarifying his need for a family to replace the one that was taken away from him—first with the Glovers and later with Jonathan and Clare and the baby that comes along.
That’s not quite what comes across in the film. Farrell plays Bobby as a wide-eyed naif, sweetly obliging and always putting the needs of others ahead of his own. But Bobby is such an amiable blank that we can read anything into him that we want to see. “Family can be whatever you want it to be,” say the movie’s ads. But actually—in Cunningham’s script, Farrell’s performance and Michael Mayer’s direction—it’s Bobby who can be whatever you want him to be.
The film takes place in an almost hermetically sealed universe, like one of those 1950s doomsday dramas about the survivors of a nuclear war. Some viewers may appreciate this, because it allows them to focus on Bobby, Jonathan, Clare and Alice; but I felt like I was watching one of those plays where the author holds the cast down to an economical two characters who spend the whole evening talking about all the people who never get to come out onstage.
Except that in A Home at the End of the World, everybody is onstage. No one else exists; the characters talk only about themselves and each other. We know that Jonathan cruises for one-night stands, but they leave no impression, on us any more than on him. We hear something about Clare’s inherited money, but only in passing, and we never really know how these three live or how they can afford to buy that house in the country (“at the end of the world”) or the shop they turn into a trendy cafe.
In the real world, things like jobs and health insurance and mortgage payments matter a great deal, but not here, evidently. It’s as if Cunningham and Mayer are afraid that such mundane things will detract from the emotional purity of their story. But they get it exactly the wrong way around: It’s the absence of those humdrum details that makes the characters feel emotionally false, like cardboard bearers of the author’s message.
Despite Cunningham’s homiletic characters and Mayer’s over-earnest direction, moments of real humanity keep breaking through. Although Farrell works deftly against his Irish boyo image, most of these moments belong to Roberts (a real discovery) and to Penn, in the strongest performance of her career. Indeed, Penn seems to rise above movie-star vanity, and her bursting vitality hints at what A Home at the End of the World might have been—if Cunningham and Mayer hadn’t been so dead set on telling us that all we need is love.