When same-sex marriage became legal in Finland this past March, the government celebrated by releasing an official emjoi — a leather-clad man with a drooping mustache and a police-style cap emblazoned with the word “Tom.” No explanation was necessary, for “Tom” was clearly a nod to Tom of Finland — real name Touko Laaksonen — the 20th century Finnish artist whose erotic art featuring hyper-masculine men in tight uniforms with bulging biceps and erect, comically enormous penises inspired repressed gay men the world over to embrace their own inner sex gods. In the admirably ambitious yet disappointing new film Tom of Finland, director Dome Karukoski and screenwriter Aleksi Bardy cover some 40-odd years in the life of Laaksonen (a superb Pekka Strang), a turn of time in which the artist goes from hiding his drawings behind an attic wall to seeing them become celebrated and then iconic, particularly in America.
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It’s likely to surprise Tom of Finland fans that there’s so little explicit sex in this movie, but the choice, which certainly makes a slow movie even slower, feels true to the period, which was all about holding forbidden desires at bay. Born in 1920, Laaksonen learned early on to admire men furtively, and save his deepest feelings for the drawing page. During World War II, when the film begins, he becomes practiced in the art of the lingering glance, leading to clandestine liaisons in the woods with soldiers, a cruising-as-life stratagem he’ll deploy in civilian life as well, to good effect and bad. (A punch in the nose one day, an encounter with a future boyfriend the next.)
As he draws, Laaksonen flashes on men he was attracted to but didn’t dare approach, most of them laborers, briskly tailored military officers, and most specifically, a handsome Russian paratrooper (Siim Maaten) he knifed to death in the war. As the years pass, Laaksonen’s horrific memories of the killing evolve into waking fantasies that find the paratrooper alive and well and walking into the wildly sexualized tableaus the artist conjures from everyday life. While photographing a motorcycle club on a Helsinki street, Laaksonen grins as the Russian appears and begins grinding his body against the motorcyclists. The dead Russian has become Laaksonen’s ultimate man: muscles, leather, ready-to-fuck smile.
Such moments are potent, so why does Tom of Finland play like an over-cited term paper? The film is jammed with incident and detail but there’s little flow to the storytelling, and all too often, no clear sense of what year it is exactly or which soldier belongs to which army, much less why the filmmakers keep returning, again and again, to Laaksonen’s bigoted, dreary sister (Jessica Grabowsky). From beginning to end, she stops the movie in its tracks.
There’s a vibrant sequence in the home stretch that hints at the film that could have been. In the mid-1950s, Laaksonen’s longtime boyfriend (a moving Lauri Tilkanen) convinces him to send his art to America, and the Tom of Finland phenomenon begins. Two decades later, pre-AIDS, Laaksonen arrives in L.A.’s West Hollywood and is stunned to see something he helped create but surely never expected: a city brimming with loud, proud, happy homosexuals.