Now playing in local theaters and arriving on demand Feb. 16, “Supernova” is so simple in concept that it seems more outline than movie. Two men of a certain age, life partners, take a final road trip after one is diagnosed with early-onset dementia. They drive through England’s Lake District, visit family, bicker amusingly over small matters and agonize over larger ones. That’s about it.
But the men are played by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, and that might be all the difference a viewer needs. (If nothing else, the Venn diagram overlap of these two performers’ sizable cult fan bases must be melting with joy.) The keynote of “Supernova” is emotional intimacy; as written and directed by Harry McQueen (himself an actor, making his second turn behind the camera), it’s a film that hovers in close to observe minute shifts in feeling.
The larger frame is the epic British outdoors the couple travel through in their old RV: distant mountains, swoops of heathland, narrow roadways that go back centuries. Against such backdrops, the problems of Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) seem touchingly small yet inescapable. Tusker, a novelist and a wit, has the diagnosis; he forgets words and drifts into the occasional fugue state, but worse is yet to come, and he knows it. (A shot of his writer’s notebook, the handwriting disappearing into scrawls, is the movie’s equivalent of a horror scene.) Sam, a pianist, is the quieter one, used to his partner being the life of the party; now he’s facing closing time and scared he’s not strong enough.
Speaking of parties, the middle section of this warm, watchable drama takes place at Sam’s sister’s house in the countryside, where friends and relatives gather to celebrate Sam’s birthday and, implicitly, bid Tusker farewell. An occasion that could come down with the glooms is instead an oddly happy occasion, with Tusker still able to hold court and laughter mixing with discreet tears. It’s a movie that sees the best in everyone, even the family bores, so where’s the conflict?
Within and between the two men, mostly, as Tusker’s plans for the remaining days of his life become clear and Sam reacts with panic and love. “I want to be remembered for who I am, not who I’m about to become,” explains Tusker with firm patience, and the wise, unflappable serenity that anchors every Tucci performance — those half-lidded eyes that see everything — makes a viewer want to nod in agreement.
Firth arguably has the more difficult role, that of a bottled-up Englishman trying to uncap his feelings without making a mess; he’s been here before, in 2009′s “A Single Man,” but “Supernova” gets closer to the nub of things. The movie finds a great deal of humor in the clash of British and American approaches to life and in the odd-couple rhythms of these two specific performers; I’d be happy if all 90 minutes consisted of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci arguing over whether to use the GPS or a road map.
But McQueen has matters of life and death on his mind, and the final act of “Supernova” puts them on the table with a frankness that’s admirable without wholly succeeding as drama; the script’s schematic nature shows through the cracks even as the actors themselves can’t be faulted. The film is most alive earlier, in the scrum of that party and a quiet interlude involving Tusker and Sam’s young niece (Nina Marlin) gazing at the night sky from reclining chairs. We are all made from bits of exploded stars, Tusker explains before reminding the girl to never, ever stop asking questions. “Supernova” doesn’t bother with many questions, but to its credit, it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
Written and directed by Harry McQueen. Starring Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci. Available at suburban theaters; on demand Feb. 16. 93 minutes. R (language)