It takes great talent to crafta completely unlikable character who is nonetheless enjoyable to watch.
Of the various caricatures in Suffering Man’s Charity, the only one I really got a kick out of was ’70s star Karen Black, who has a cameo as a drunken, horny, and grotesquely vulgar grandmother, massaging her crotch and pleading for sex.
The moment you realize that it is in fact Karen Black onscreen is probably the high point of the film (sorry to have ruined it). Alas, Black’s delightfully debauched and gutsy turn happens very early on, and is not particularly significant to the story, which revolves around a high-strung music teacher named John.
A mediocre artist whose ego and affectations far outweigh his talents, John is played by director Alan Cumming with a bitchy, scenery-chewing zeal; Cumming does to divas what the Coen brothers —themselves Jewish —do to Jews in Barton Fink.
John has a habit of extending his generosity to struggling artists and then trying to profit from their talent —or at least get laid. When we meet him, he is fixated on his current houseguest, Sebastian, a would-be writer played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s hunky (and somewhat wooden) David Boreanaz.
When it becomes clear that the straight Sebastian has no intention of either paying his bills or putting out, John flips, dresses him in a bra and panties, ties him to a chair with Christmas lights, and proceeds to torture, shriek at and humiliate him, until both are dripping with sweat and snot and cursing each other.
It’s a potent setup, but the characters are so thinly drawn and ridiculous that we neither enjoy the torture nor pray for Sebastian’s rescue.
When things go wrong, we can smirk at what it reveals about John’s failings —but in the end, this reward seems too slight for having sat through the preceding excesses.
Though favourable reviews of the film have drawn comparisons with Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, I was reminded more of 1994’s Swimming with Sharks —a far lesser film —and maybe just a little of Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew, which hits many of the targets Suffering Man’s Charity only aims at.
Fans of over-the-top black comedy may get something out of Suffering Man’s Charity, but I didn’t.