There's a deceptive simplicity at play in Joseph Graham's gorgeous tale of casual connections the yearning for something deeper, Beautiful Something. The film finds four men wandering - if not geographically, at least mentally and emotionally - in Philadelphia. What they're looking for isn't always clear, neither to them nor to the viewer. But once that elusive treasure is found, it seems obvious, as if there's no other goal these searching souls could have been pursuing. Graham's film walks a wobbly tightrope between profundity and pretense, never falling squarely into either camp, and being all the more thrilling to behold: one wonders when the film will veer decidedly one way or the other, perhaps even hoping for it to become a glorious mess or a messy bit of glory. Instead, Beautiful Something is rather like its subjects: unfocused but brilliantly chasing its desire to matter.
It's tempting to write the film off as Paul Thomas Anderson-lite, connecting the disparate dots of lost souls in a single city. One would be hard-pressed to defend such a reading, and would be missing out on what the film has to offer beneath its sumptuously shot surface. Even by structuring such a film in the gay community, the film makes a statement. Within any given city, any two gay men are mere degrees of separation from each other, wont to bump (and possibly grind) into each other at point or another, whether by chance, through mutual friends, or through the imminent promise of the plethora of gay social networking apps. Thus, that these characters all cross paths and connect doesn't come across as contrived or convenient; it's not a mere narrative device. It's more of an eventuality.
Additionally, Beautiful Something at first seems like a parade of people hooking up, and nothing more. Most early scenes contain some sort of sexual encounter; it's the motivation for the characters in more cases than not. Again, this isn't far from the truth of what drives some gay men who find themselves awake into the wee hours of the night in rowdy, restless cities. Disturbingly, most of the sex is bareback (meaning, it happens without a condom): Brian is caught off guard when his first tryst happens without protection, but the film then rumbles on with nary a thought to wrapping before tapping.
It all feels a bit random and messy, though admittedly authentic in its randomness and mess. As a gay man, I've rarely seen queer life depicted so honestly, even if the characters are perhaps more articulate than the average guy you might meet at a club or on the street. People collide, they take what they want, they give what they're willing, and they leave. Bob symbolizes the way sex is a product to be perused, chosen, and consumed, the (unused condom) wrappers tossed aside after. In an age where the next hot guy is only a swipe on Tinder away, people have become disposable, lucky to be deemed worthy more than once.
This is where the meat of Beautiful Something comes into play. After a playful bit of dancing and flirting, Bob - perhaps coaxed on by the alcohol he consumes throughout the night, likely downtrodden at the state of his romantic and sexual life - opens up to Jim about his long-dead love, taken from him in the Vietnam War. In a timely turn, he talks about how lucky the gay community is today, able to walk hand-in-hand, even get married. He would've loved such a freedom in his romantic heyday, when such a relationship had to be hidden away. His personal anecdote, which Lescault delivers with gentle heartache, rings as a rebuke to the entire cast of characters, and will likely sting viewers, too. The queer community is enjoying its greatest visibility and acceptance ever, and to celebrate, there's in-fighting, manipulation, and careless sexual rendezvous.
Not that the film is a harsh judge of sex, in general. It depicts the hurt that can come from casually giving it away, yes, but these characters are supremely sexual beings, and we still sympathize and care for them, a testament to the actors who have to navigate their questionable actions and sometimes careless attitudes. Brian's candidness, Jim's ambition, Drew's affection, and Bob's warmth point to the goodness that lies within all of us, and can be wielded in powerful ways, in the bedroom and without. Graham isn't telling his viewers to remain chaste until marriage; rather, he's telling them that they're allowed to want more. It's scary to voice such desires, but the outcome can surely be beautiful.