Strange format, good content

Put aside for a moment the feelings you may have about the Matthew Shepherd murder in Laramie, Wyoming. Your feelings are relevant here, but for a moment we have to take a rational look at what this film actually is.

It's not really a documentary, nor even a documentary of a documentary, and it certainly isn't a dramatization. It's more of a dramatization of a documentary, and that doesn't sit that well, so imagine the typical viewer trying to put it into a nicely labeled box as they watch. Granted, good art often intends to play with our customary ideas about the world, and that's a good thing.

Still, there's an otherworldly feeling about The Laramie Project. Consider that Moisés Kaufman, who led a theater group into Laramie to interview people - and turned that into a play, leading to this movie, which he directed - consider that he is played in the film by Nestor Carbonell (from the awful Jack the Dog). This is about as much a puzzler as Danny DeVito's role in Man on the Moon. This guy is involved in theater, yet presumably decided that acting would have distracted from his directorial duties. Imagine taking line readings from this guy!

And so Kaufman and his troop descend into Laramie, providing the framework for the story, which is fragmented in so many ways that any other way to present it would merely confuse and frustrate. This is where we seem most like a documentary. Actors playing Kaufman and his friends interview actors playing real people in Laramie or otherwise involved with Matthew Shepherd. HBO made a big deal of all the Hollywood names associated with the project, and we see them there on the screen, giving good performances, yet reminding us at the same time about the nature of what we are watching. And that's where it feels like a dramatization, especially with some courtroom reenactments late in the game, but again, there really isn't a catagory for this.

Now let your feelings about the Murder and what it means to be gay come back to you. You'll hear a lot more about what happened than passed through the news. You'll get all the common viewpoints reflected in these interviews. Honestly, there's not much here that would surprise you, but watching the struggle of people to understand and to cope, that's what holds the interest for the film.

It's interesting to note that the filmmakers tip their hand to their partiality in what's going on. Often in documentaries, a countering view is allowed to present their side and if the piece as a whole is impartial, it can end up making a much clearer argument for the favored viewpoint. Again, this isn't a documentary by design, but they've hindered their ability to put forth a persuasive argument.

Ultimately, your feelings about The Laramie Project will be as strong as how you feel about what happened. That'll be the best way to gauge if it's worth your time. I do like the movie and think it's worth seeing, but that dependence on the feelings brought into viewing it means it cannot truly stand on its own, and so I cannot rate it that high. This is one case where putting a number on something is almost meaningless.

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