Movie review: In ‘Diane,’ Mary Kay Place faces aging, death
Psst! Hey, baby boomers! Gather around. I have some startling news for you. You’re going to die; sooner than later. I’m sure it’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s a fact. So you may as well get used to it - just like the protagonist in “Diane,” Kent Jones’ requiem for a generation that once believed it would live forever.
Now, what are you going to do about it? If you’re like the title character, a 70-year-old with a string of regrets, you’re going to undergo deep introspection. You’re also going to be attending a vast amount of funerals for people you thought would always be there to steady the course: Aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and worst of all, close friends. As each falls, one by one, you grow just a little lonelier, a little sadder, and a little more desperate to clear your conscience before the reaper comes for you.
That’s “Diane” in a nutshell. It’s gloomy, but it’s also an affirmation that there’s life in death, evidenced through one woman’s struggle to atone for her sins. Or, should I say, sin, singular? It’s a doozy, too. With Mary Kay Place as a conduit, we can practically see it eat away the armor her Diane has shrouded herself in. Might she be the reason her 30-something son, Brian (Jake Lacy), has bounced in and out of rehab since forever? As they say, the needle doesn’t fall far from the arm. And might she be a catalyst for the rapid decline of her cancer-ridden cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell)?
Even if she isn’t, Diane believes she is, and that’s all that matters. Guilt is powerful, and it weighs on Diane like a 400-pound gorilla. Place makes sure you feel it, too, with a performance that is both a pinnacle and a nod to her previous best work in “The Big Chill,” another profound look at boomers getting an unsavory taste of death. The films arrive 35 years apart but their takes on mortality couldn’t be more intertwined. Whether Jones had that in mind when he wrote the script is debatable, but it’s here just the same.
“Diane” is also a bit akin with “Manchester by the Sea,” another meditation on death in small-town Massachusetts, albeit set in the foothills of the Berkshires as opposed to the coast. And like Kenneth Lonergan did with “Manchester,” Jones makes evocative use of place, providing numerous dash-cam views of highways and byways from winding country roads to the Mass Pike, all in service of how life is hurtling forward with little time to look back at where you’ve been.
It’s really quite moving - literally and figuratively. But the moments that resonate are the everyday conversations Diane has with her extended family and her one close friend, Bobbie (an outstanding Andrea Martin). They joke and rag, but do it with an intimacy that underscores the depth of their connections. They also know precisely what subjects to avoid, but aging and reminiscing are always fair game. And the talk is genuine and lived in. Credit that to Jones, a filmmaker whose roots lie in fine documentaries like his 2015 gem, “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” He infuses “Diane” with the same adherence to realism through wonderfully naturalistic performances by a terrific ensemble that includes Joyce Van Patten, Phyllis Somerville, Glynnis O’Connor and Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons as members of Diane’s extended family. They pop in and out, always to offer support free of criticism. It leaves you envious.
The takeaway, though, is Place, a character actress with a history of solid performances, but nothing to prepare you for what she delivers here in a film that fits her so snuggly you can’t imagine anyone else in it. And Jones lets her run with the part, filling in all the details with nuance and an exactness that goes beyond mere acting. Even in the many silences, Place says so much with so little it feels effortless. But make no mistake; what she’s doing is herculean, portraying a woman whose plainness belies a complicated soul in need of freeing. And when she finally sheds those chains, its transporting; and more than just a little bit self-effacing for her - and us, the boomers. We won’t live forever, but “Diane” will surely make you want to live life a whole lot better.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com
Cast includes Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, Deirdre O’Connell, Glynnis O’Connor, Phyllis Somerville and Joyce Van Patten.