Julianne Moore is bullet-proof. No matter how many terrible films she makes - and it's been quite a few, at this point - no-one would ever even think of suggesting that her career is drying up, or that the actress herself might not actually be worth watching anymore. This is for the extremely good reason that she is one of the finest film actors currently living.

I bring this up because I have recently seen Moore demonstrate something that I wouldn't have thought possible: she is too good in the newly-released Savage Grace. What ought to be a delightfully trashy potboiler is more or less ruined because of the leading lady's powerful, amazing work as the real-life Barbara Baekeland, who married into the Baekeland plastic dynasty and ended up murdered in 1972, in one of the more fucked-up ways that one can end up murdered.

Nothing about the film is especially wrong, although precious little of it especially memorable. It's just, when you've got somebody like Julianne Moore blowing the doors off your movie and knocking every single one of her costars into a cocked hat, "not especially wrong" turns rather quickly into "pretty much wrong," if only in comparison. Everything else about the movie is appealingly slight at best, and what we end up with is a tragic imbalance that makes everything that is not Barbara seem much worse than it probably is.

The crazy thing is, it's not even really her film. It's really about her son Antony (Eddie Redmayne, a veteran of trashy potboilers), a massively screwed-up young man who had to start taking care of his mother at a young age, and ultimately loses the ability to have any sort of actual human relationship with anybody else. Redmayne is one of those people who is extremely pretty because he's kind of ugly,* and it's hard to deny that he was cast for his physical appeal above all things; his ability to properly act is at least a bit suspect, and his delivery of the omnipresent voiceover from which he explains how the Baekelands got to be so dysfunctional is hurtful to the ears. The actor's overall lack of expression or affect almost - almost - works to the film's advantage: if you accept that the main thrust of the plot is how a shiftless boy without a personality gets devoured by his overpowering mother, well, there's little doubt that Moore could devour Redmayne. But when the film requires Tony to have any sort of depth at all, he really doesn't. The other giant weak link is Stephen Dillane as Brooks Baekeland, the actual money-holding member of the family, and while Dillane has been a fine actor and surely will be again, he feels too much a dilettante compared to Moore's overwhelming presence. It's much harder to excuse that in story terms; Brooks is clearly meant to be a stronger force than he turns out to be.

So who is this woman that Moore plays so well that she practically wipes every other character off the screen? Barbara is defined above all else by her urgent desire to fit into high society, with her loving son praising her in voiceover for the skill with which she sets people at ease and gives off the air of having come from the oldest of old money. The reality is much different: she is at times classy and always well-appointed, but she is often overbearing and prone to embarrassing missteps: casually asking who at the table would have sex with whom for how much money, or eagerly inquiring of one of the world's foremost Proust scholars, was the author really gay? To say nothing of her actual outbursts, screaming like a five-year-old when things don't go exactly right. Moore navigates every shriek and scrap of oily charm with ease, and no matter what may be said of the story containing her, at least Barbara comes across etched firmly into our minds.

Oh, that story containing her! Covering the years 1946-1981, Savage Grace manages to compress a lot of events into a fairly short running time, and I'm thankful to screenwriter Howard A. Rodman for not belaboring the rather frequent jumps forward in time that his treatment of the material is obliged to take. But it's all kind of arbitrary, more like an awful family's greatest hits than any sort of probing, comprehensive study. We feel the gaps in the story more than the story itself, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile, director Tom Kalin (who appears to have made only short films, including one with the irresistible title "Robots of Sodom") has little if any ability to guide the story, or to do anything really very interesting with the camera, or those other trifling things that directors do. He's very good at sucking the air out of the story with lots of gauzy and diffuse interior scenes, that's for damn sure.

Oh Julianne! why do you do these things? It's entirely clear why she was attracted to Savage Grace - Barbara is one hell of a role - but surely there must have been some clue somewhere along the line that the finished product would be this flimsy and arch. But no matter, wherever she goes we will follow, even it's to a fussy sci-fi movie that nearly got yawned out of Cannes.