I highly doubt that after 20+ years of development hell, Glenn Close intended for her dream project, the gender-bending drama Albert Nobbs, to be laughed at as uproariously as I did when I finally got the chance to see it. But there I was, forcibly biting my lip to the point of it turning white in order to (unsuccessfully) stop the torrent of inappropriate laughter coming out of me. It certainly didn't help that my friend would, out of nowhere, come up with comments such as the title of this piece and send me into another fit of hysterics. Just to be clear, Albert Nobbs is not a hysterical comedy in the vein of Bridesmaids. It's actually the exact opposite in nearly every way. Albert (Close), a butler at a late 19th century Irish hotel, leads a very quiet and reserved life. Day in and day out, he keeps to himself while doing his job, never stepping out of line, getting in anyone's way or even raising his voice. Albert is the sort of man you'd never expect to have a dark past or any sort of secrets, but he has the most surprising secret of them all: he is really a woman, driven by poverty and desperation years ago to dress up as a man for a waiter job and continuing to do so to remain employed. The most surprising thing about this, to me anyways, was that anyone bought that Albert was a man. Granted, I knew going into the film the secret but come on. Albert was able to go decades as a man without someone going "Really, Albert?" These comments apply doubly to Janet McTeer when her character, Hubert, first appears in the film. He accidentally discovers Albert's secret, only to reveal later on that he too is also really a woman. No shit, Sherlock. The make-up work in Albert Nobbs is fine, but no amount of it on the planet will ever disguise the real sex of Janet McTeer. I mean, did you see her tits busting through her shirt?
In the first of two scenes that sent me in a fit of hysterics, Hubert shows Albert his real gender by opening up his shirt and fishing out her gigantic tits, letting them hang out as free as the wind. Even funnier is Albert's reaction: he recoils in fear as if Hubert had pulled a knife out of his shirt and was about to murder him in cold blood. The second occurs later in the film as, after a series of rough patches in their lives, Albert and Hubert decide to recapture their femininity by putting on dresses and taking a stroll along the beach. If the idea doesn't already have you chuckling, just wait until you see hulking Janet McTeer in a dress easily three sizes to small waddling down the beach. I had a hard time believing her as a man earlier in the movie, but after that scene, I didn't buy her as a woman either.
The problem with these scenes--and the rest of the film, if we're being honest--isn't that they are funny in and of themselves. It's that they clash so violently with the downbeat, middle-brow drama that the rest of the film is aiming for. Albert Nobbs is really four or five downbeat, middle-brow dramas rolled into one, none of which are really interesting enough to be developed into a feature on its own. The main crux of the film, a character study of Albert, works to a certain degree, but I feel like there may have been a more imaginative way to explore this than in the conventional way Close chose. Albert is a character who has spent so many years hiding his identity, (s)he has no idea who (s)he really is anymore. He's a dull character because he has to be in order to survive. Albert couldn't risk becoming close to anyone, so he became someone so dull and uninteresting, no one would bother him. The problem for Close, then, is how to portray a human being without a personality and make them a character worth following for two hours. I'll say she gives it her best--"A" for effort, as they used to say on Idol to contestants they loved but sucked that week--but the challenge is too insurmountable for even someone with her talent and skill. The scene where she reveals her past to Hubert is quietly heartbreaking, thanks mostly to Close's subtlety. However, the entirety of Albert Nobbs is so vociferous, Close can't keep up and her performance suffers. As wild and nutsy as Albert Nobbs is, I feel like I should mention that I had a wildly good time at this movie. Sure, most of it was terrible in the traditional sense, but it was a good deal more entertaining than any of the "feel good" movies nominated for Best Picture this year. Although she may have not intended this in her 20 year struggle, it looks like Close may have accidentally made a future camp classic. C