If ever there was a film crying out for some John Waters pizazz, it's "Tom of Finland." Granted, this biographical drama of a provocative gay artist is the Finnish government's official entry in the 2017 foreign-film Oscar race. But achieving what is seemingly impossible and certainly undesirable, director Dome Karukoski turns a promising story into a flat, clammy bore.
That may be because Touko Laaksonen (played by Pekka Strang), the artist who billed himself as Tom of Finland, was a difficult fellow to pin down. The creator of vividly detailed art is shown as a man of contradictions. He was a World War II veteran whose life in the 1940s and '50s was cautious and discreet to avoid gossip and bruising encounters with the police scanning Helsinki's male lovers' lanes.
That era's stereotypes of repressive Scandinavian society all but suffocate the first 70 minutes of the two-hour running time. The film opens with dozens of men running stark naked side by side. If that suggests a sense of intimacy, think again. They're racing to plunge into a frozen lake. One athletic diver gets a smidgen of expressionless staring from Touko, and that's it.
With an utter lack of sexuality, Touko goes to work at an ad agency, shares an apartment with his sister, who thinks he should settle down with a nice woman, and draws salacious doodles in his bedroom. With its dark, cold, wintry locations and dull, plodding pace, the film's opening feels made by Finns for Finns who want to plunge into ice water.
Patient viewers will find the tone and look of the film warming considerably as the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s arrives. Touko's life is more open and happier. His drawings, which he thought would be "easier to publish in the Vatican" than conservative Finland, make a global splash when a publisher of adult magazines begins regularly showcasing his work. His sketches of strapping, broadly muscled tough guys trigger gallery exhibitions and inspire the gay S&M tight-leather subculture.
Karukoski lightens up further with a sequence following Touko's most devoted American fan and pen pal, Doug (Seumas F. Sargent), going to a weightlifting gym to build a graceful, sculpted body and practice his pickup lines.
The film remains in need of fine tuning but shifts into full Village People mode when Touko is invited to experience the American good life of porn publishing in Los Angeles, where thousands of men look like clones of his characters. Every leather man he meets shakes his hand and says, "You're my biggest inspiration" and, "You make these boys feel special, beautiful." When the police rush through the gates to a mansion's all-male pool party, guns out and ready, it's because "we're looking for a suspect who just robbed a mini-market down on Sunset." While rainbow flags and Pride marches remain years away, the gay bars are packed wall to wall.
For all its changes of scene, nothing adds up to much. Events in one moment are shrugged off the next. The film reaches its low point when the HIV/AIDS crisis turns to a fantasy of Touko's wartime days in the trenches with a squad of singing soldiers. It offers at least a clumsy break from the film's routine biopic formula of plodding ahead chronologically year after year, but it's too little much too late.
Tom of Finland
★★ out of 4 stars
Unrated: Sexual themes, mature language and full male nudity. In English and subtitled Finnish.