Michael Cunningham’s justly acclaimed novel about a ménage à trois between two childhood friends — one gay, one wavering — and an older woman begins, as it must, in the 1960s, and ends in the 1980s with disillusion and the AIDS crisis in full poisonous flower. Unlike most other fiction set in this period, A Home at the End of the World is not a hippie novel, or a me-decade novel, or an ’80s novel, which is to say that it has nothing lofty or low to say about these decades as cultural moments. That such an experiment in living would begin at a time when definitions of love, sex and family were put up for grabs makes perfect sense, but Cunningham filters in the passing decades as backdrop, subtly woven into the longings of three people groping for new ways to live. Exquisitely calibrated (and occasionally bordering on precious), the novel is an inquiry into sex, love, friendship and the limits of freedom, conducted almost entirely inside its characters’ turbulent heads. For that reason alone, I can’t think of another contemporary novel — unless it be Cunningham’s far more ambitious and less successful The Hours — less suited for the journey to film under any direction but that of, say, Russian dreamer Alexander Sokurov.

Which makes Michael Mayer’s movie version, adapted by Cunningham himself, a hazardous project going in. Bringing such an interior novel to the big screen would likely defeat filmmakers far more experienced than Mayer, a theater guy best known for his recent Broadway staging of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Like so many films set in the ’60s, A Home at the End of the World succumbs early to a frenzy of period accessorizing. Out come the dorky wigs, the war paint, the doobies, the Bob Dylan, the Laura Nyro, the Stones — the decade-as-lifestyle. Opening in Cleveland in 1967 around a budding friendship between Bobby, a loose cannon who has survived three major family tragedies, and Jonathan, a pimply dweeb with a more stable domestic life, The Home at the End of the World devotes its first two acts to readying us for the arrival of Colin Farrell’s eyebrows. As played by Andrew Chalmers, Bobby Morrow, a wee boy mourning the accidental death of the wild big brother he adored, has a pair already hefty and dark beyond his tender years. By 1974, an older Bobby (Erik Smith), resplendent in brows so prominent they seem to be standing on end, has moved in with Jonathan, turned his kind but vaguely discontented mother (a very sweet Sissy Spacek) into a weekend pothead, and enjoyed some exploratory sex with his friend without ever admitting to himself that he might be gay.

Suddenly it’s 1982, punk is almost dead, and here at last is Farrell, his own handsome brow furrowed, less, perhaps, by emotional confusion than by the effort not to let slip a shoulder-length wig that you know is destined to come off sooner rather than later. Newly arrived in Manhattan to crash with the now openly gay and sophisticated Jonathan (Dallas Roberts), Bobby is promptly seduced by his friend’s roommate Clare, a free but desperately insecure spirit whose sensitive rendering by Robin Wright Penn is all but neutralized by a getup (spiked magenta hair, bright-blue mascara, scarlet nails) that gives her the air of one who just blew in from the Doo-Dah Parade. Shorn, leathered and tattooed under Clare’s tutelage, the new and improved Bobby would make a fine addition to the scene on Christopher Street, but he’s still astonishingly blind to the true nature of his feelings for Jonathan. It’s not till the threesome has shacked up in a Woodstock house with a new baby of uncertain paternity that matters come to a head.

It’s here, where Cunningham’s novel works best, as it wistfully contemplates the limits of free living and loving, and confronts the inevitability of loss and the imminence of death, that Mayer does his best to quiet the mood. In one beautifully modulated scene, Clare watches from a doorway as Bobby and Jonathan dance on the porch; Penn is terrific as the mature woman waking up to the fact that she’s a fifth wheel. Also wonderful is relative newcomer Dallas Roberts as the volatile, intelligent Jonathan, who won’t declare himself until it may be too late. The jarring and crucially weak link is Farrell, a talented actor woefully miscast and comically uncomfortable here. Thrashing around in a character he clearly doesn’t understand, Farrell plays him to the end as Bobby the Bumpkin, wide-eyed and ruinously unpersuasive as the wised-up, fully formed adult without whom the movie’s parting insight can only fall apart.

A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD | Directed by MICHAEL MAYER | Written by MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, based on his novel | Produced by TOM HULCE, CHRISTINE VACHON, KATIE ROUMEL, PAMELA KOFFLER, JOHN WELLS, JOHN N. HART JR. and JEFFREY SHARP Released by Warner Independent Pictures | At Sunset 5 and NuWilshire

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