And so, what kind of a career-defining statement is the last feature-length movie to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, until he changes his mind and starts making them again? None whatsoever, thankfully. The thought of the curtly unconventional Soderbergh making a pat "this is my theory of everything, good night" gesture is anathema to his entire career, so in a way, it's gratifying that Behind the Candelabra is so pointedly out of place in the director's canon, carried on the wings of a last defiant "fuck you" to Hollywood baked right into its distribtution (he couldn't get financing because it was "too gay", HBO ponied up the money, and then it premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival).

And so it is that Soderbergh rides into the sunset with a biopic, about the outstandingly camp piano player Liberace (Michael Douglas). It's not exactly the director's first foray into the genre, though it's the first time that he's played it this straight by the biopic rules: Erin Brockovich was a legal thriller biopic, The Informant! was some weird triangulation between biopic, caper, and farce. Behind the Candelabra, with a script by Richard LaGravenese, is as classically-shaped as they come: it's about the lifespan of the romantic relationship between Liberace and one of his many sexy young protégés, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), whose memoir formed the basis for the film. From 1977 to 1984, Liberace and Thorson fucked and flirted and quarreled, till in a galling act of betrayal, the pianist threw Thorson over for a younger, sexier new model. In and of itself, there'd be absolutely no reason to tell this story, except in a massively pandering "see, the homosexuals have ill-advised romantic lives just like the rest of us!" way (though certainly, for presenting a legitimate homosexual love affair without loudly announcing its progressive slant, the movie is a social good), but the relationship between the middle-aged man and the kid (Damon's casting notwithstanding, Thorson was 17 at the time the story begins) was fraught with the kind of insane, narcissistic behavior that we all secretly hope is true of all celebrities. The most overt gesture was when Liberace demanded that Thorson receive plastic surgery to make the two look closer, but it is not the only one, by any stretch.

Behind the Candelabra is thus two different things at once: the story of a love affair that ages and sours and breaks apart in acrimony and lawsuits; and a wallow in the perverse need for constant validation and satisfaction that drives the fame-starved - and very few people in the history of gaudy Las Vegas acts so plainly wanted fame so badly and so constantly as Liberace. It's not remotely obvious while you're watching that the film is secretly serving two thematic masters, which owes a lot to the way that Soderbergh shoots it (as with most of his recent projects, the director also served as cinematographer and editor, under his reliable pseudonyms "Peter Andrews" and "Mary Ann Bernard"), in a cold, objective style - no mean trick, given how virtually all of the shots in the film are from Scott's point of view - that gives the whole film an observational feeling, positioning us outside a messy situation, watching with clinical fixation as it plays out to its tragic end. Perhaps it's best not to say what the movie is Capital-A "About" when it is simply about a pair of human beings whose uncontrollable behavior got the better of them.

Behind the Candelabra is an excellent example of what it is, crisply made and hellaciously great acting: Douglas and Damon perfectly navigate the entire lifespan of a relationship from giddy freshness to screaming fights to the even more terrifying clipped professionalism of their legal fight at the end, and doing it while mimicking an incredibly famous live-action caricature in Douglas's case, or playing a man less than half his age, in Damon's, and doing it so well that it ceases to register after a scene or two that these gimmicks are part of the performance. Both of them are aided, certainly, by excellent, grotesque make-up effects (and as much as "the make-up appliances were great!" feels like fake praise, the make-up appliances here are great, and then some), and by LaGravenese's punchy dialogue, but these are tools, not crutches, and the net effect is as scrupulous and comprehensive a document of lovers evolving as movies or TV have borne witness to in quite a while.

The only problem I can see with any of this, in fact, is that I honestly don't see from the final product why Soderbergh wanted to make it. And wanted it he most certainly did: he's been nurturing this project for years. Which would, theoretically, mean that there's some passion driving his association with the film, and by any imaginable yardstick, it's a well-directed movie: the best American-made biopic in a half a decade or longer, and in no small part because of how cleanly Soderbergh presents the material. But nothing in the director's career has ever felt only like a story well-told: there's always some stylistic flourish or at least a conceptual angle (like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven plus its sequels, which are in their ways referendums on the idea of a movie star vehicle), and I'm probably an idiot, but I don't see that here. The closest thing is its structure, ruthlessly jolting from scene to scene in a ragged flow where chronology is deliberately obscured and the space between scenes and moments is reduced to the smallest portion of narrative that remains even a little coherent. Given that the film is totally yoked to Scott's POV, it's irresistible to suppose that this is a means of dramatising the memory of an intense romantic relationship, as a series of peaks and valleys whose connection is more emotional than classically dramatic. That's something the film does inordinately well; but other movies have done it well.

I suppose I mean to say that this is pretty nearly the best version imaginable of a story that I didn't realise needed to be told, and I truly don't see why Steven Soderbergh had to be the one to make it. In that it is a classy, no-bullshit piece of smart mainstream filmmaking for a smart adult audience, it's certainly a respectable "last" film. Sloppiness and all, though, I wish he'd gone out with the formal and thematic edginess of Magic Mike or Side Effects.