Masquerading as a bubbleheaded update of Design for Living, Splendor is Gregg Araki’s version of a family-values movie. The values in question are kinky, but only on the surface. And for the first time in an Araki film, there’s nothing but surface—the vacuity is genuine. At best, Splendor offers a kinder, gentler, seemingly heartfelt affirmation of polymorphous sexuality. At worst, it soft-pedals its heady perversity into a moral of sorts—threesomes are good; they can work. (And while we’re at it, sex is really good, and so are babies.)
The ménage à trois here revolves around struggling L.A. actress Veronica (Kathleen Robertson), who relates the events of her strenuously wacky life in a cutesy to-camera confessional that suggests Meg Ryan doing Ally McBeal. The fun starts one night when she meets brooding, sensitive rock critic Abel (Johnathon Schaech) and punk-drummer sexgod Zed (an agreeably Neanderthal Matt Keeslar) and decides not to choose. At first the guys are jealous, but a truth-or-dare session engenders a (tame) same-sex kiss. All three sleep together (offscreen; the guys, it seems, don’t so much as lay a hand on each other), and before long are cohabitating in relative bliss.
For far too long, the film leans on the notion of unconventional domesticity for humor—not unlike Three’s Company, which it namechecks. Araki has always exploited the tropes of bad TV, turning them inside out and rubbing them up against each other, with pleasing—if not necessarily profound—results. Splendor, however, might as well be bad TV. The broad acting (Kelly MacDonald, as Veronica’s kooky-Brit lesbian best friend, deserves special mention for her skin-crawling performance) and leaden script cancel each other out. The overall tone is also problematic—satirical, mocking, and large, but without direction or context (it’s a mark of how self-satisfied and literal-minded the film is when the end credits roll and New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” kicks in). At once in-your-face and out-of-it, Splendor is what happens when a director whose natural mode is subversion runs out of things to subvert.