The Accidental Tourist

August 20, 2012

The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist is Macon Leary, a travel writer. Macon is leery of most of life’s experiences, including, oddly enough, travel. But this makes him the perfect person to write his businessman’s guides to different cities; Macon describes how to travel so that you never feel you’ve gone anywhere.

Where do you find a meal in London that will taste like a meal in Cleveland? Where are the American hotels in Paris? Macon finds ways for travelers to cocoon themselves away from any experience of strangeness. And always pack lightly: “In travel, as in life,” he advises, “less is definitely more.”

Macon’s cocooned life is shattered by his son’s death and his wife’s departure. Tyler’s novel, and the film adapted by director Lawrence (The Big Chill) Kasdan, describes Macon’s struggle with his lifelong tendency toward self-insulation.

He is an intriguing character, and perhaps only William Hurt could play this role; this is one of those rare movies in which the hero’s purpose is not to act but to think. Hurt can convey this, although his passive presence at the center of a film begins to make the movie seem washed-out and bland.

There isn’t a lot of story to speak of. When Macon’s wife (Kathleen Turner) leaves him after accusing him of leading a muffled existence (“I’m not muffled,” he says, “I endure. I’m holding steady”), he continues writing, tending to his increasingly contrary dog, and watching the Home Shopping Network during long afternoons. Then he meets a kooky dog-trainer (frizzy, frazzled Geena Davis) who tries to scratch away at his barrier.

The film also spends considerable time with Macon’s family, to whom he retreats. His siblings are just as controlled and eccentric as he (and they are amusingly played by Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, and Ed Begley, Jr.).

Kasdan, who also directed Hurt and Turner in Body Heat, has made a literate and thoughtful film. He and co-screenwriter Frank Galanti are faithful to the novel, even retraining much of the book’s dialogue. But they haven’t quite fashioned a living, breathing movie out of it. The film is sketchy and controlled; in its own way, it’s as overarranged and self-conscious as its unhappy hero.

The film does becomes animated by Geena Davis’s presence. She’s the character who’s supposed to put Macon in touch with the lifeforce, and Davis (a tall, adorable actress who was so good opposite her husband Jeff Goldblum in The Fly) is fine at catching the character’s bubbliness and also her underlying layer of grit. Kathleen Turner, on the other hand, is relegated to a supporting role (she disappears from the film for a solid hour), and there isn’t much she can do to explain the wife’s uneven behavior.

Much of the peripheral business is nicely done, such as Macon’s publisher (Bill Pullman), a disappointed yuppie who becomes attracted to Macon’s sister, despite or because of the fact that she’s the kind of person who alphabetizes food on kitchen shelves. This film’s pleasures are real, though I think it fundamentally misses the mark. The New York Film Critics disagreed; they named The Accidental Tourist best picture of the year.

First published in the Herald, January 5, 1989

Nobody talks much about the movie these days. I think I’ll stand by the review, although the movie is not a stiff, by any means…just a little too exactly-everything-you’d-expect. Geena Davis won an Oscar for her performance.

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Children of a Lesser God

February 15, 2012

Children of a Lesser God, the new film adapted from Mark Medoff’s Tony award-winning play, is vulnerable to criticism. There are a few moribund scenes that never spark. Structurally, the film seems lopsided, going on too long, and it appears to grope for a satisfactory ending.

And the solution to a key problem—one of the main characters does not speak, and her lines must be spoken by the other actors—does not quite ring true.

These are some of the movie’s problems. I mention them early, so I can get on with praising the film, because, for all its flaws, it contains scenes that are as stirring as anything I’ve seen on a movie screen this year.

Children of a Lesser God—the title is an evocative quote of Tennyson—begins with a teacher (William Hurt) arriving at a school for the deaf. (He has full hearing.) His unorthodox methods (he gets the kids’ attention by falling off his chair and standing on his head) don’t win him any friends among the faculty, but the children are clearly excited.

His big job is getting the youngsters to talk. These deaf children know they sound strange when they try to speak, and so they rely on their sign language, which Hurt believes will keep them in a social ghetto.

He runs into the same problem with a former student (Marlee Matlin) who now works at the school as a janitor. She’s completely deaf and fiercely anti-social, wanting merely to do her work and get through life, and she will not speak because she does not want to be embarrassed. She views with contempt Hurt’s efforts to get her to speak, assuming he is motivated by pity.

Before long he is motivated by something else entirely. They go on a date and she wants to dance. She can’t hear the music, but when she is on the dance floor, she moves to some sort of internal music, swaying alone, her eyes closed, moving with sensual grace. Hurt stands to one side, watching, dumfounded. He is falling in love.

With good reason; this intensely erotic scene introduces us to the depth of Matlin’s character. And she is the mainspring for the exploration of the developing relationship, which is unshirking and mostly free of cliché. You know how such a film would end if it were a TV movie: the “Miracle Worker” solution, where the principals tug and tussle and then the deaf woman speaks at the end. Embrace; fade to black.

Well, that’s not the way Children of a Lesser God plays it, and much credit to director Randa Haines (who, in fact, comes from television: “Hill Street Blues” and the TV movie Something about Amelia). Haines can also take credit for the exceptional level of acting, which carries the script over its rougher moments.

Most of the principals are hearing-impaired actors, making their first film appearances. Without exception, they are excellent. Much of the film’s dialogue is signed as well as spoken, and by the end of the film signing seems natural.

Hurt is one of our most important actors, and if he sometimes seems to be searching for his character during the film, he nevertheless contributes a powerful presence. Perhaps only Hurt would tackle the scene in which he tries to “show” Matlin a Bach concerto by interpreting it through movement.

But fine as Hurt is, he cannot match the incandescence of Marlee Matlin, a hearing-impaired actress for whom this is the first major role of any kind. The beauty of her performance has only slightly to do with her undeniable prettiness. This is the sort of performance where the actor communicates what can only be called a beauty of soul.

If there is any suspicion that these critical hosannas are unduly inflated by the actress’s triumph over her disability, I can only tell you to see the film. Matlin’s silent performance is one of the eloquent I have seen in years.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Matlin won the Oscar for best actress, a choice with which I obviously concur. I’ve never seen it again, but obviously it caught me at the right moment. Hurt’s vagueness turned out to be a sign of things to come, even though he can still nail a role. Randa Haines does not have many credits since, although I have a soft spot for Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, a movie with a powerful sense of place (Florida) and two large turns by Robert Duvall and Richard Harris.


Gorky Park

January 17, 2012

During Gorky Park, you should be thinking about the murder mystery: Did the KBG kill those three people in Moscow’s Gorky Park? Or was it that rich American furrier (Lee Marvin)? Will the Russian detective (William Hurt) fall in love with the mystery woman (Joanna Pacula) who may have known the dead people, or will he betray her? And what about the American (Brian Dennehy) who keeps sticking his nose into everybody’s business?

These are things you should be thinking about during Gorky Park. Maybe you’ll be able to, but I wasn’t. Nope, I was thinking about William Hurt’s accent.

For some reason, Hurt has adopted a British accent for this movie. Maybe it’s because most of the other actors are British—even though they’re all supposed to be Russians, anyway—and Hurt isn’t supposed to stand out by comparison.

Hurt is the kind of exciting actor who is always taking chances; he’ll read a line as though nobody had ever said anything like it before—even if it’s a dumb line. When he’s cooking—as in Altered States, Body Heat, or The Big Chill—there’s no one more interesting to watch.

But speaking in this absurd accent seems to have taken up the better part of his artistic concentration for Gorky Park. Now he’s not just trying to give a line a fresh reading, he’s struggling to get the pronunciation right, too. I tell you, it’s distracting.

And the mystery is so convoluted that, if you get distracted, you’ve lost it. That may be part of the point of the film—that the various plots and reasons for the murder are so tied up in knots that they become meaningless.

That’s fine, but director Michael Apted and screenwriter Dennis Potter are not quite up to the challenge of spinning this yarn with the clarity it needs (it’s based on a best-seller by Martin Cruz Smith). Gorky Park lacks focus; it’s missing the thread that would pull together its shadowy elements.

The locations are nice, thought—most of it was shot in Helsinki, Finland—and some of the supporting players seem to be enjoying themselves, especially Ian Bannen as a Soviet prosecutor and Rikki Fulton as the head of the local KGB. Like almost everyone in the film, they’re both completely untrustworthy.

And Lee Marvin is good to have around. He plays the rich fur trader who wants to get some live sables out of Russia so that he can break the Soviet Union’s monopoly on that expensive fur. Somehow this leads him to an involvement with four young people, three of whom wind up in shallow graves, buried by the falling snow at Gorky Park.

The surviving member of the group, played by Pacula, has her hands full—not only is she connected to the ghastly murders, she’s also caught in a sexual tug-of-war between Hurt and Marvin.

Hurt, despite the distractions, has his moments. But I hear his next movie is Kiss of the Spider Woman, now shooting in Brazil. Uh-oh. Let’s hope he plays an American tourist, not a Brazilian generalissimo.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1983

I can remember watching this again on a drowsy winter afternoon on TV, when it seemed endless and wintry and dull. The cast alone suggests giving it another try, but I think I’ll tackle The Russia House again before that happens.


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.