Periodically I go through these funks where I see a run of bad or just meh movies that makes watching movies for a living really feel like a job, and I start to worry I may never see a good movie again. It takes a great movie to snap me out of it, and this week, that movie was Some Kind Of Heaven, about as close as it gets to a perfect documentary. (Available now in select theaters and for VOD rental).
Directed by young South Floridian and Sundance fellow Lance Oppenheim, Some Kind Of Heaven is a portrait of The Villages retirement community outside of Orlando, a Disneyworld-like slice of augmented reality with a population of more than 130,000, set on a movie-backdrop paradise of golf courses, swimming pools, and margarita bars. Another South Florida documentarian, Billy Corben, who loves to try to explain Florida to outsiders, describes Florida as “a sunny place for shady people,” and once told me “The whole state started as a real estate scam and, in a way, it’s never really grown out of that. We are America’s perpetual rebellious teenager.”
Perhaps the pinnacle of that real estate scam is the Villages, a kind of Tomorrowland for older folks rebelling against the concept of growing old. Even as a viewer you can’t help but be taken in by Oppenheim’s portrait of The Villages, shot in such vivid technicolor that, after the drab white elephant awards movies and hastily shot schlock I’d been slogging through all week, made me feel like the kids in Pleasantville seeing color for the first time. It’s also perfectly fitting for the setting, a place that resembles a Glendale shopping mall draped in a conceptual Hawaiian shirt.
Of course, it’s the characters that make Some Kind Of Heaven so compelling, and they’re all attempting to live out a fantasy of some kind or another. It’s tempting to imagine “adulthood” as this mythical life stage in which one puts away childish things and faces reality, but the characters in Some Kind Of Heaven prove — well, mostly the men do, anyway — that it’s possible to inhabit your self-built delusion basically until the day you die. Provided you can force the women in your life to go along with it, that is.
As one character in Some Kind Of Heaven puts it, The Villages is sort of like college, a giant party school where people from all different places can come to reinvent themselves but never have to go to class. Or to paraphrase Billy Corben again, “L.A. is where you go when you want to be somebody, New York is where you go when you are somebody, and Florida is where you go when you want to be somebody else.”
The characters include Reggie and Anne, who have been married for 47 years. Anne is a seemingly down-to-Earth gal who loves playing pickleball and doing all the active things The Villages allows. Reggie, meanwhile, seems to have interpreted retirement as a stage when accountability no longer applies, and spends his days tripping balls on powerful hallucinogens. On the day of their anniversary, he tells his wife that he’s already dead and reincarnated, and is also God, which he proves by hitting himself in the head with a rock. “He was a much more conventional type of person when we got married,” Anne assures us in a rictus of feigned calm.
Incredibly, Reggie isn’t even necessarily the best character. There’s also Dennis, a self-described former handyman to the stars, who lives out of a van which he has parked in the Villages in the hopes of finding a nice-looking woman with lots of money to move in with and live out his days. Dennis trawls bars, churches, and nightclubs to find his future sugar mama, though he says that he’s found that the best place to meet “classical looking beauties” is at the swimming pool. He name drops his former clients Colonel Tom Parker and The Smothers Brothers (could ten screenwriters ever invent such perfect name drops?) in an attempt to impress one lounge goddess, who responds, in a deadpan, “I don’t care.”
Getting old can be both liberating and devastating like that. Suffer fools? At this age? Never. Likewise, it’s hard to know whether you want Dennis to succeed in his quest or fail. Is knowing that every oily bullshitter and big-talking fabulist you knew in your twenties could still be exactly the same person at 81 years old inspiring or pathetic? To some extent, it’s both. Old age is the prism through which the vivid color of Some Kind Of Heaven refracts.
Grounding the whole thing is Barbara, a widow from Boston who looks a bit like a melancholy Liza Minnelli and who in 12 years of living there hasn’t quite found the life that she was expecting. Trying valiantly to get over the loss of her husband, Barbara gamely keeps putting herself out there, and your hope for humanity lives and dies with her latest hobby — whether it’s acting, miniature golf, Jimmy Buffet, or the tambourine.
Some Kind Of Heaven is a surreal, visually sublime slice of life that offers escapism and subverts it in the same breath, an enduring portrait of a particular subculture the likes of which I haven’t seen probably since Wildwood, NJ. I spent virtually the entire 83 minutes laughing, slapping my forehead, or both.