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Though he successfully entrenched himself in the American mainstream with Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's Eleven series, Soderbergh is as much of a revisionist-critic filmmaker as Jean-Luc Godard. Most of his movies double as responses to earlier films and filmmakers, in which Soderbergh makes their innovations seem new again by marrying them to more-recent developments in cinema. Behind the Candelabra doesn't really advance on Fassbinder's body of work, which we're still catching up with more than 30 years after his death, but it suggests what he might have seen in American culture had he ever made a movie here.
Fassbinder's most enduring theme may be how we replicate patterns of social control in our most intimate relationships. And so it goes with Candelabra, which dramatizes how the hypermaterialistic Liberace transformed everything he loved into a possession. Scott Thorson, the young naif played by Matt Damon, is a former foster child yearning (like many of Fassbinder's pathetic identification figures) for true love. He comes into Liberace's circle by tending to his sick poodle (Thorson wants to be a veterinarian), and quickly gets absorbed into the celebrity's inner world as if succumbing to a cult. The victim-lover must prove his devotion in ways that grow sicker and sicker, relinquishing his control over his spending money and even his body. The movie reaches its most stomach-churning during a few hard-core images of plastic surgery that take the idea of person-as-object to its literal conclusion. The operations are overseen by a monstrous-looking Rob Lowe, who rounds out a ghoulish (yet never campy) supporting cast that also includes Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, and Debbie Reynolds. (As in The Informant!, Soderbergh fills many of the dramatic bit parts with well-known comedians—in this case, Paul Reiser, Tom Papa, and David Koechner—to create a heightened sense of disbelief.)
At the center of it all is Michael Douglas's impressive star turn as Liberace, which would have been a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination had Candelabra received a theatrical release in the U.S. (Then again, many people expected Douglas to be a shoo-in for his fine work in Wonder Boys and he got snubbed for that as well.) As imagined by Douglas, Liberace too is a victim of the showbiz success ethic, so drunk on his own celebrity that he doesn't realize what a terror he's become. Even his moments of tenderness are tainted by a desire to have more and more—in keeping with the air of Cronenbergian body horror, Douglas frequently looks as if he's rotting away from within.