Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.

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The Big Chill

December 19, 2011

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” asked the Beach Boys, in words that seem to sum up the great yearning of rock ‘n roll music. How great to be different from adults, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some of the privileges. How great to get the fringe benefits without the side effects. Man, that’d be the day. For many people, this day of freedom with limited responsibilities really happens—some of us call it college, although it can assume other guises. The sun is out, dreams take flight, and companionship is constant and crucial—at least, that’s the way it takes shape through the filter of memory. Two things are certain about the endless summer: 1) It will end, and 2) It will be romanticized.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” pops up in the course of Lawrence (Body Heat) Kasdan’s new movie, The Big Chill, and it’s a pretty appropriate choice. The Big Chill is about a group of people, a decade or so past their college chumminess, who reunite for a weekend. They’ve been drawn together by the suicide—and subsequent funeral—of one of the old gang. His suicide haunts their rosy memories, as does the fact that none of them has lived up to the uncompromising ideals of the good old days. Many-tentacled adulthood has grasped them all, and the weekend looms as a chance to recapture some of the old warmth. Is the fire still there? God only knows. But few moviegoers will be able to resist that delicious feeling of settling back and awaiting the various sexual, emotional, chemical, geographical combinations that tend to erupt on such an occasion.

That brings us up against the fact that we’ve seen this kind of movie before—recently and beautifully in John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, which also presented a weekend of ex-radicals discovering a sheepish mellowness as well as certain ties that bind. Some people may be bothered by similarities between the two films. Frankly, I found it easy to look at the first five minutes of The Big Chill and say, “Oh, it’s going to be something like Secaucus Seven. Okay. Let’s go.” It was very easy, and Kasdan and his co-screenwriter Barbara Benedek have their own path to chart across this tried-and-true territory.

The on-screen people Kasdan has gathered together to make this weekend interesting are some of the most exciting young actors around right now. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close host the reunion in their fine old Southern mansion; their marriage, made comfortable by the profits from their burgeoning shoe company (and despite Close’s past affair with the dear departed) seems to be going all right. Maybe that’s what’s bugging them. Mary Kay Place plays an executive who is sick of men but desirous of a child, a situation that is, shall we say, pregnant with possibilities. Tom Berenger plays the pretty star of one of those beefcake private-eye TV shoes; he may not be as savagely bright as the rest of the gang, but he’s very well-meaning (that’s a good piece of casting; Berenger has been a male-model type for a while now, and you can almost sense his excitement at being in something good. The fact that he’s not as sharp an actor as Glenn Close or William Hurt simply serves his character). Hurt plays a seriously burned-out (and impotent) Vietnam vet whose drug-dealing has turned into something more than a sideline. Jeff Goldblum is the former crusading college-newspaper reporter who now spends his time rationalizing his job at People magazine. JoBeth Williams wanted to be a writer, but finds herself deeply into housewifery these days; she is looking for something—specifically a long-delayed something with Berenger—to happen, and it’s now or never.

That’s a terrific bunch, and there’s not an off-key performance in the lot. Two others, outsiders, figure into the proceedings: Williams’ unbearably straight-arrow husband is played by Don Galloway (yes, of TV’s “Ironside”—another fine casting stroke), and the air-headed young girlfriend of the deceased is played by Meg Tilly. In a bad movie, Tilly’s character might be meant to represent the purity of the instinctual nature as opposed to the overly analytical attitudes of the main group of friends. In The Big Chill, she’s something less—and more—than that. Her silliness plays against that sort of symbolic interpretation, and her fascination with the morbid Hurt leads the film towards a sense of revitalization. Kasdan seems interested in facing clichés and lashing back at them, and her character is no exception.

There’s a delight in turning things on their head here that springs less from cruelty than honesty. Some of the heated dialogue exchanges are choice, particularly when a character will spout something sensible and platitudinous—the kind of thing that usually passes for wisdom—whereupon someone else may pause a beat before saying, “That is such a crock of shit, I can’t believe it.” (JoBeth Williams’ unexpectedly fiery reaction to Berenger’s gentlemanly thanks-but-no-thanks retreat from her sexual gambit is the greatest of these moments.)

The Big Chill is full of good dialogue, but some of the things I’ll remember most about it have nothing to do with words: the look on JoBeth Williams’ face when she turns to look out her car window (and toward the camera) as a way of taking her mind—or, at least her eyes—off her husband as they drive away from the funeral; the lovely group dynamic as an after-dinner clean-up is transformed into a dance; the camera movement that captures the moment Glenn Close gets an idea about Mary Kay Place’s desire for a partner in progeny.

These people speak with grown-up mouths and move with grown-up bodies, but we get the idea they’re more confused than they were in college. They could sing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,” for years, and still wonder when the state of adulthood will really happen. The Big Chill gives a benevolent blessing to this state of mind. “The good old days” may well be a crock of shit, but it matters, as we learn by the end of this weekend, that some of that time remains alive, even after the big chill.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

This is one of those reviews where I have to chuckle about the worldly wisdom being doled out by a 24-year-old writer. But fine, that’s in the spirit of the movie, I guess. I haven’t seen the picture since it came out, but I infer that to the generation that was just coming up, The Big Chill is the epitome of Squaresville, which I guess I understand. By the way, I have always wondered exactly where the title came from; Kasdan has explained it as a reference to the cooling of youthful fires, which is clear, but it sounds like a quote from something. A couple of years after seeing the movie, I came across the phrase “big chill” in a Kerouac novel, I think The Subterraneans, and wondered whether it could be a source, but who the hell knows.


Fatal Attraction

September 23, 2011

Paramount Pictures, via a heavy advertising campaign, is clearly positioning Fatal Attraction as the big thriller of the season. Its confidence is probably well-placed, since this movie is as slick and manipulative as they come, which is to say, it’s also often distastefully effective.

It’s from director Adrian Lyne, and Fatal Attraction displays the same sort of superficiality and gloss as his Flashdance and 9 ½ Weeks. Unlike those films, here Lyne at least has subject matter that is innately compelling.

The story is an utterly simple littler shocker. Married man has a one-night stand with a woman; woman turns out to be crazy and hounds the man and his family; man and family must defend themselves. It’s the kind of devilishly relentless plot that might have burbled up out of the nightmare novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson.

However, Lyne dresses things up a bit. The man (Michael Douglas) is a high-priced Manhattan lawyer; the woman (Glenn Close) works for a publishing company he represents. They meet at a party and spend a torrid weekend together while his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter are away. When Douglas tries to break off the affair, Close insists on pursuing it, and she starts calling his office, sending him mad taped messages, and finally showing up in his living room.

Eventually her madness leads to a violent series of conclusions, and Lyne orchestrates the thriller aspects of the movie with some sledgehammer success. He’s still a terribly obvious filmmaker: Are there many directors gauche enough to cut away from a lovemaking scene to a percolating pot of coffee?

Amid the sound and fury, the three main actors are working hard. Anne Archer is one of those people about whom film critics keep wondering—Gee, when is this smart/sexy/funny actress going to get in a good movie? In Fatal Attraction, she suffers a lot, but she does get a few licks in.

Douglas trades on his sagging jowls and hollowing eyes to suggest this man’s moral shiftiness, and he’s pretty good casting. Douglas is about 10 times more interesting when he’s playing weak characters than when he’s playing good guys—a fact he seems finally to be realizing.

Then there’s Glenn Close, who, since The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, has been working to change her image: No more Ms. Nice Guy. She’s certainly not nice here. Most good actors are susceptible to psycho roles, because they’re so darn much fun to play, and Close is probably as good in this role as anyone, quite chilling at times. But finally there’s nothing to this part, regardless of its showiness; the woman’s crazy and she scares people. Neither the movie nor Close can give the character any more meaning than that.

Lyne seems to be mining a number of different subtexts, including fear of women, fear of the city, and (so help me) fear of telephones. But the main undercurrent is probably fear of AIDS. While the disease is never mentioned, the movie is after all about the horror of a casual sexual encounter that produces a lingering, fatal aftermath. In its grim way, Fatal Attraction is a hysterical, anxiety-streaked recruiting poster for fidelity.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1987

The picture was a smash, confirming Douglas’s big run of significant parts and changing up Close’s image, at least for a while. (Great headline from the National Enquirer or equivalent rag: “The Most Hated Woman in America!” next to a photo of dear Glenn Close.) The movie’s a real scare show, very Old Testament, seemingly designed to shock the rubes into toeing the line. And speaking of Lyne, he hasn’t had a feature out since 2002’s Unfaithful, an attempt to capture the old magic.