The romantic and winsome “Looking” had two near-perfect seasons on HBO before it was cut down in its prime. Apparently, us audiences were more into dragons and sword play than the low-key romantic dramatics of a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Thankfully, HBO has delivered closure on the series in the form of a movie, co-written by series creators and producers Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, and directed by Haigh. Appropriately, “Looking: The Movie,” is in itself entirely about the notion of closure and the act of moving forward.
Naturally, it’s closure of the romantic variety, as Patrick (Jonathan Groff) finds himself in San Francisco again after running away to Denver in the wake of his two spectacularly failed relationships with Richie (Raúl Castillo) and Kevin (Russell Tovey). He’s in town for the wedding of Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Eddie (Daniel Franzese). If you remember Agustín from the beginning of the series, you would never have expected him to be the marrying kind, and the characters often remind us of his bad boy past. The beauty of the series is that his transformation was entirely real and rooted, and no character is past redemption.
The film feels like an extra-long episode of “Looking,” with the only added dramatics the wedding narrative structure. “Looking” was always an inherently cinematic show, coming from “Weekend” and “45 Years” director Andrew Haigh. The seasons felt like a 5-hour long movie segmented into 30 minute chunks, paced with the singular looseness and ease of Haigh’s work. It’s remarkable to consider the emotional highs and lows that he pulls off within the relaxed, realistic cinematic reality in which he specializes.
“Looking” was always based around the conversations about life and love and friendship shared over meals and drinks and walks throughout San Francisco, and the film takes this ambling approach to its narrative as well. It starts with a pub crawl throughout Patrick’s old SF haunts, which offers ample opportunity for the characters to reminisce about old times, who they were, how they got there, and revisit old flames.
The pub crawl colors in the rich character of the San Francisco that they inhabit—gay dive bars, Asian restaurants, 24-hour diners, and druggy nightclubs, all populated by drag queens and every species of gay subculture (a world which Patrick attempted to monetize with his mobile app at the end of Season 2). It feels like such a specific moment in time, a San Francisco on the verge, straddling the world of tech and bourgeois coffee shops, but with its vibrant and unique LGTB culture intact—the estuary where young closeted men from Colorado like Patrick are raised in how to be gay, how to be himself in this world (of which there are myriad possibilities).
It is deeply personal, and political. Patrick makes the most explicit political statement when he muses about the progress of the gay movement at the nightclub wedding reception, which proves that even the most heteronormative of traditions can be queered. There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not marriage makes one boring, or lame, or less radical—not as “deviant” as “gay” used to signify. But “Looking” wants to argue that marriage is whatever you want to make of it. “This isn’t a fucking Katherine Heigl movie,” Patrick advises Agustín. Whatever it takes, however it ends, there is value in taking the risk to fight for love despite the possibility of hurt and heartbreak.
The film is is propelled by its conversations, but its visual cinematic style is intoxicating, allowing the viewer to sink comfortably into this universe. What feels natural, like hanging with a group of old friends, is surely difficult to pull off, but Haigh does it effortlessly. Moments on the dance floor have a dreamy, tipsy feel, soft and dark and twinkly, the most welcoming place in the world. And for a film built on conversation, Haigh masterfully uses visual storytelling to evoke emotional fireworks, particularly during the film’s climax.
Castillo and Groff are perfect actors for Haigh, who elicits profound meaning and story moments from seemingly simple facial expressions. Castillo communicates with his eyes and gestures, speaking volumes with a smirk or a nod. Groff has always played Patrick as chatty, nervous, and animated, but here he seems smoother, calmer, more confident, more grown up. He still babbles and shoves food into his mouth, but there’s enormous power in when he stops for a moment, and says nothing. The entire cast is winning, and here’s hoping we see them pop up in more soon.
“Looking” always had such an easy charm, though it took a few episodes to slip into the vibe. But once it won you over, it was impossible to resist. “Looking: The Movie” is a fitting tribute to the series, giving us the closure we needed with Patrick, and this world, in a lovely film about the choices we make in love and life. [A-]
“Looking: The Movie” premieres on HBO Saturday, July 23rd.