Enemies, A Love Story

November 12, 2019

enemiesGenerally, writer-director Paul Mazursky likes to work in comedy. After all, he had his start in the business as a stand-up comedian, and his funny films have ranged from good (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) to indifferent (Moon Over Parador). But Mazursky weighs in occasionally with heavier stuff; An Unmarried Woman, for example.

I’ll take the thoughtful Mazursky every time. There’s somthing about getting serious that sets his juices flowing, as his latest movie, Enemies, A Love Story, confirms. This may be Mazursky’s richest film.

It’s based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The central character is Herman Broder (played with understatement by Ron Silver), a Polish Jew who survived World War II by hiding in the barn of a sympathetic family of farmers. After the war, he marries the family’s daughter, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), and they come to New York to settle.

It is 1949, and Herman and Yadwiga live in Brooklyn, where she is essentially his live-in servant He is carrying on an affair with Masha (Lena Olin), a concentration camp survivor, a sexy and slightly unstable woman. Herman is balancing his separate lives when a surprise arrives. His wife.

No, not Yadwiga, but his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston). He thought she had died during the war, but she survived and has arrived in New York. Everything comes together like some classic farce, yet this is not a comedy; this is a film about the mechanics of survival, in war or in life. Many scenes have wonderful humor, but this is a darkly hued tale. Herman is essentially a man who died during the war; his spirit is gone yet he still walks and talks and makes love, like a ghost of himself. Masha tells him, “The truth is, you’re still hiding in that hayloft.” His affairs are not the light pastime of a philanderer, but the only way he seems able to connect with life. His women clearly fascinate him, but he can’t seem to make sense of his situation.

The three women are splendid. Stein is a newcomer who embodies the essence of peasant simplicity. Huston, who has turned into such a fine actress, is both down-to-earth and somehow regal. Lena Olin, who was also a prominent sexual presence in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is unpredictable and mesmerizing. She just won the New York Film Critics’ award for best supporting actress, and it’s difficult to argue.

Mazursky, who does one of his acting cameos in a small but important role, captures a colorful sense of period and place. Enemies has a novelistic texture. Every scene comes alive with a variety of meanings, and nothing is tied off in a simple explanation. That’s probably why this film lingers so suggestively in the mind.

First published in the Herald, January 21, 1990

Maragret Sophie Stein did not make many Hollywood films, but returned to her native Poland and is still working there (aka Malgorzata Zajaczkowska). Of course Lena Olin is also a great actress, but she is a “prominent sexual presence” in Unbearable Lightness, so please forgive me. I wish Mazursky had made more non-comedies, though he did pretty well by those.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills

June 26, 2012

During the credits sequence of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, you feel the tingle of something clicking: A bedraggled bum pushes a grocery cart full of junk down a Los Angeles street in the early morning light, as the soundtrack plays one of the most striking songs of recent years, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”

The images are sharp and pointed, the music pulls it together, and there’s a crackling sense of direction. Unfortunately, once the music stops and the film proper starts, this tingly feeling dissolves all too rapidly.

What we have here is vintage Paul Mazursky social satire, Beverly Hills variety, as we are introduced to an archetypal ’80s family. Husband (Richard Dreyfuss) is a fatcat in the wire-hanger biz, whose non-existent sexual relationship with his wife is replaced by midnight liaisons with the maid. Wife (Bette Midler) is a shrieky kook who tries every form of meditation, fire-walking, and wacko religion available in California—and that’s saying a lot.

Their son faces every family event with a video camera attached to his head, as he worries about his sexual orientation; the daughter escapes the madness by jetting off to her Ivy League school. They have a Rolls-Royce, a swimming pool, and a psychologist for their dog; they’re wildly unhappy, needless to say.

Mazursky hits his targets—he’s been drawing this sort of satire since Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice—but with surprising obviousness. A satirist, above all else, must be a part of his times, and Mazursky seems to be making the same jokes that were new and effective in the late ’60s.

He takes this ripe family and throws in a loose cog: that bum (Nick Nolte) from the credits, a dropout from society who represents everything they’re not. Nolte, having lost his dog, decides to end it all by throwing himself into Dreyfuss’s pool. Saved, he moves into the household, thereby changing the lives of all present.

After he gets cleaned up, Nolte takes Dreyfuss down to Venice Beach, where they drink cheap wine, eat garbage, and sleep under the stars. Naturally, Dreyfuss sees this as an utterly energizing experience.

Then Nolte teaches the heretofore horrified Midler about the secrets of Balinese massage, which works as a prelude to a cosmic sexual encounter.

Some of this is predictable, some is not. But even when Mazursky’s touch is heavy, the players are very good. No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well, and Midler is born to the part (although Mazursky might have encouraged her to be even a bit more outrageous).

Dreyfuss, who hasn’t scored a hit in a long time, is very good in a less showy role. The longer the film goes on the more you realize his character is really at the center of the story.

There’s also nice work by Tracy Nelson (Rick Nelson’s daughter) as the daughter, and Little Richard is amusing as a flamboyant (what else?) neighbor, whose Rolls-Royce is an exact duplicate of Dreyfuss’s car.

The film is a loose remake of a 1932 French film by Jean Renoir called Boudu Saved from Drowning. In that film, the bum, played by Michel Simon, was even more of an uncontrollable force of nature than here—indeed, the earlier film was much more uncompromising in its satire. All of which proves that, to the industry’s discredit, movies are often less daring now than they were 50 years ago.

First published in the Herald, January 31, 1986

“No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well,” but of course Michel Simon did it, too. Nobody but the two of them. I remember a look Nolte has at the end of this movie that achieved the same flash of existential shock that “Once in a Lifetime” provides, and thinking how good he was, and is.