In 1976 Cousin, Cousine was a bona fide arthouse hit; it made a nice pile of money in the States, and not only did it garner an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language film, it even got nominated for best screenplay and best actress.
For some reason, it has taken Hollywood 13 years to remake it. These days, the turnaround time is a lot quicker, as evidenced by such rapid transformations of Gallic originals as Three Men and a Baby and Three Fugitives. But Cousin, Cousine is a more delicate property than either of these and, to be fair, a more thoughtful approach has been taken with the remake.
The film is called Cousins, adapted by playwright Stephen Metcalfe and directed by Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys). One thing that can be said for the remake is that it handles the story with care. What can’t be said for the remake is that it discovers a fresh American feeling for the tale.
The movie takes two married couples, plus their families, and mixes them together. Larry (Ted Danson) is a dance instructor with a short attention span; “When it looks like I might be successful,” he explains, “I move on.” He’s married to Tish (Sean Young), whose flightiness seems to suit him.
When Larry and Tish attend his uncle’s wedding, Tish winds up in a dalliance with a car salesman, Tom (William Petersen). Larry spends a quiet moment with Tom’s wife, Maria (Isabella Rossellini). Before long, there are two new couples on the scene.
The romantic interplay in this foursome is the film’s main subject, but there’s also time given over to Maria’s mother (Norma Aleandro), Larry’s crusty father (Lloyd Bridges), and Larry’s teen-age son (Keith Coogan).
In fact, as it turns out, there’s not enough time left to go around. The movie wastes two good actors, Sean Young and William Petersen. Their characters are stick figures and given short shrift.
It’s a movie with a split personality; some sequences are made with sensitivity, others remind you that Joel Schumacher is the guy who directed the insufferable St. Elmo’s Fire. A few keen observations flit by, and then a corny homily comes crashing down (of Larry: “He’s a failure at everything except life”).
Cousins is at its best with the affair between Larry and Maria. Hesitant at first, they swear to be just friends, but a night at a lakeside resort (filmed in British Columbia) changes that status; it’s the movie’s most romantic scene.
Still, one of the film’s weaknesses is Danson’s performance. Sorry, Cheers fans, but this actor seems more suited to television than movies. On the big screen, his heavy brow and set-too-close eyes have the effect of closing him off; he’s blank, he doesn’t radiate light.
Isabella Rossellini, on the other hand, radiates all over the place. She is the best reason to see Cousins, giving a wonderful performance in which every moment seems invented on the spot. The movie glows when, having spent a day with her illicit lover, she walks into her husband’s car showroom and strides up to the camera, absolutely beaming, and says, “Hi!” Simple things matter in a movie like this.
First published in The Herald, February 1989
At this point Rossellini should have had her pick of Hollywood parts, even if this film didn’t do particularly well; but (although her career has of course been rewarding), things didn’t take off the way they should have. Or maybe she didn’t want that. Anyway, see her in this movie. The film’s director, Joel Schumacher, died a couple of days ago, and is enjoying a series of appreciations, a tendency that really ought to be nipped in the bud. (I get it, you grew up watching The Lost Boys in heavy rotation on cable and it spoke to you, but let’s not get carried away.) I did enjoy a couple of his films toward the end (including the entertainingly trashy Trespass), and that Vulture intervew he gave in 2019 was a better movie than most of his movies.