Even more than the rest of us, actors, especially women, are the prisoners of time – the clock on their careers runs cruelly fast. Save for La Streep, roles are hard to find beyond a certain age, and starring roles virtually impossible. So it’s a delight to see Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, superb talents and Oscar winners both, share almost every frame of Cloudburst. It would be a greater delight if Cloudburst were a better movie, but, for once, let’s stow any niggling complaints and take heart from the fact that the characters here are as unique as the actresses who play them. How often on screen (or off) do a pair of septuagenarian lesbians get to offer life lessons on love?
For the past 31 years, the two have shared a house on the rugged coast of Maine, and the early odd-couple scenes succinctly show us why. Beneath her tattered cowboy hat, Stella (Dukakis) swears like a lumberjack and is built like one too. By contrast, Dot (Fricker) is plump with a nimbus of grey curls and a lovely Irish lilt. On a summer’s eve, Stella curls up with some porn, which Dot can hear but can’t see. She’s blind, although not to the cultural changes afoot: “Imagine. You can now buy lesbian porn at the gas station.” Later that night, they cavort in bed with a vibrator that’s no longer put to purposeful use, but whose energetic buzzing remains music to their failing ears.
Enter Dot’s straight-arrow granddaughter, court order in hand, to do what’s best for her aged relative: the dreaded nursing home, of course. Just as predictably, Stella busts her out of the place, whereupon our geriatric Thelma and Louise hit the open road in a red truck, stopping along the way to pick up their version of Brad Pitt – young hunk Prentice (Ryan Doucette), a wannabe dancer returning to visit his sick mom in Nova Scotia. Indeed, given our saner views on same-sex relationships, the border beckons for the lesbians too: “We’ll drive to Canada and then we can get legally married and no one can separate us.”
What follows is a picaresque road comedy, adapted by director Thom Fitzgerald from his own stage play, which he cracks open remarkably well, taking scenic advantage of the rolling hills and ocean views en route. This is, at best, a pretty picture. Unfortunately, the humour, much like Dot’s failing health, is up and down. Sometimes it’s low and sitcom dull, like when “Hey, I don’t make the rules” gets met with “That’s what Joseph Goebbels said.” Other times, though, it rises close to ribald wit, like when the always acerbic Stella hits a smirking waitress with this verbal dart: “If that skirt was any shorter, you’d need another hairnet.”
However, the strongest moments aren’t the laughs but the lyrical episodes, the sequences where two great actors are allowed to forget the farce and show off their subtle range. Watch for the one where the movie makes good on its title: On a warm afternoon by the sea, a sudden cloudburst sees the giggling ladies totter from the truck to get drenched in the gentle rain, lifting their heads first to nature’s embrace and then to each other’s, lingering for a deep kiss that seems the very soul of enduring love. Altogether different, but just as remarkable, is a passage that only Dukakis could bring off: Stella’s fiercely delivered and surprisingly touching ode to the c-word, by which (sorry patriots) I don’t mean Canada.
Alas, it’s soon back to clumsiness at the finale, along with a contrived punctuation that even our starring principals can’t keep on the safe side of maudlin. Ah, but I promised to forgo those complaints. Better, then, to heed Stella: “Take it from an old broad … If you’re ever lucky enough to have a perfect day, don’t let go of it, bank it.” Well, that cloudburst in Cloudburst is the movie equivalent of a perfect day. I’m banking it.