Reiner v. Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut is the movie that most embarrasses film critics this year. It not only cost a leading daily reviewer her job (if you listen to the right inside dope) but hardly anyone who reviewed it got it right?not even the blurb whores. That's mostly because our hype crisis has made an uncorrupted response to movie art almost impossible. It's often difficult to see contemporary films apart from their promotion, to separate a filmmaker's intent from the culture's mandate, to distinguish Kubrick's individuality from his legend. Expecting Kubrick to be ahead of his time, reviewers were stumped to discover him outside his time. Eyes Wide Shut's moral consideration of marriage and sex was widely dismissed as old-fashioned and out of touch. It didn't promise an empty tomorrow (like the jejune Fight Club) but uncomfortably reconsidered morality that the 90s forgot. And this intransigence was, ironically, betrayed by Kubrick's and Warner's desperate marketing ploy. (See "Tom and Nicole doing it!")
The movie was actually about Tom and Nicole not doing it, elaborating the forbearance required in marriage by which sexual intimacy gives way to trust. That's a strange, alienating theme for today's film audience?for adult moviegoers perhaps more so than young. Teens have little concept of the necessity of fidelity and older viewers, by now, expect new movies to distract them from such worrisome tenets.
Audiences are much more comfortable with the insubstantial marital comedy in The Story of Us, which dares no discomforting view of relationships but presumes the comedy of marriage must be insipid. It asks that audiences recognize themselves in a contrived pre-divorce plot about nothing (cutesy breakup threats), while Kubrick dredged up the sorrow and anguish that precipitate marital discord. The most alarming joke in Eyes Wide Shut was in how powerfully the old virtues exert themselves on a young, pretty, rich, desirable couple's conscience; the joking lie in The Story of Us suggests marriage is soured by nothing more than minor annoyances.
Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer are crinkled versions of the Tom-Nicole kewpie doll couple. Kubrick could have made good use of their implicit experience and maturity but director Rob Reiner devalues them. Willis plays a tv writer and Pfeiffer creates newspaper crossword puzzles. They have the perfect number of kids (a boy and a girl) and a comfortable lifestyle that unaccountably bores them. Something might have sparked had Cruise and Kidman played these cutouts?perhaps a parody of Ideal Marriage as represented by mannequin performers. Instead, something worse occurs: Reiner traps Willis and Pfeiffer?traps us?in a series of tit-for-tat sketches that resemble no genuine husband-wife conflicts but turns marital unease into frivolity. What's supposed to be a partnership gets worn down by the wife's exasperation with the husband's lack of organization and the husband's fretful response to her gripes. These dilemmas disguise any real problem. A universe away from Kubrick's marital hell, The Story of Us flirts with how little marriage means in Hollywood.
Think back on the debased screwball genre that Reiner initiated with Nora Ephron with the dreadful 1989 When Harry Met Sally. Its most recent declension, You've Got Mail, was abominable mainly because Ephron seemed unconscious of any human fidelity. Her trite plot blithely dispatched the two relationships that protagonists Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had previously established. She was like a car dealer encouraging new-model trade-ins. None of the relationships was dramatized with any gravity beyond a sitcom's. Ephron and Reiner's inanity, using jokes and old standards to substitute for emotional expression, was normalized by the successive popularity of When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and even such maddening spinoffs as Billy Crystal's Forget Paris. We weren't meant to recognize that the concept of relationships in these movies was aberrant, insensitive and made sense only to a culture of disposable partners. It's not guilt-free, late-20th-century America these films expressed, but Hollywood where "alienation of affection" is as common and deceitful a euphemism as "creative differences."
Hollywood morality often (unconvincingly) assumes the shape of universal sentiment. In last year's What Dreams May Come, all the otherworldly furbelows and funereal grandeur covered up a convenient rationale for wrecked families and ruined marriages that Robin Williams' ambitious doctor character had left behind. The Story of Us attempts a similar con by having Willis and Pfeiffer narrate their marital woes in the style of the elderly couples in When Harry Met Sally, and then pass off their superficial worries?and even more superficial resolution?as common to everyone. This mendacity should be offensive to all because it falsifies the delicate balance of desires and frustrations that a relationship must withstand. Reiner even redoes the Citizen Kane marriage montage?twice, oafishly (with Pfeiffer rasping "fuck me, fuck me"). All Reiner and Ephron accomplish (although The Story of Us was written by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson) is falsehood. The succession of these films doesn't enlighten; they merely familiarize us with tactics of evasion. Stupid viewers mistake it for the truth (or the fun) of personal situations?fidelity to sitcom phoniness that also explains praise for American Beauty.
So many layers of artifice estrange The Story of Us that the film itself is less interesting than the ideological means that produced it. You can see it as, partially, a Hollywood liberal apologia for the Clinton marital troubles. Therapists are touted as cultural necessities and best-friend dialogue advises "amending the Ten Commandments" to accommodate the inevitability of adultery. There's even an analysis of a couple that "stayed together too long in a bad marriage." (Note how that sentence emphasizes duration over commitment.) When Willis and Pfeiffer repair to Venice to restart their love, they are hounded by a fat, boorish American couple, themselves divorcees?caricatured not for their covetousness but their un-Hollywood style. (Although style's a joke in a Rob Reiner film. His direction may be smoother than Ephron's, but it's still crude. He lets Pfeiffer acts as if she had no costar in a scene, and the movie's one potentially surefire setpiece?Willis and Pfeiffer arguing in a king-size bed with each pair of parents egging them on?is unimaginatively edited and lacks verbal invention.) With such clumsiness, The Story of Us develops no husband-wife intimacy and all its confessional talk is merely cant.
Reiner's Venice sequence may remind those with movie memories of Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love where George Segal and wife made up in the Piazza San Marco. Critics, of course, don't remember. They didn't catch the poignancy of Kubrick's reference to Mazursky's film (a sophisticated 70s consideration of guilt and temptation). Possibly, that's because critics don't know cinema history but more likely it shows that our Clinton culture lacks the seriousness about marriage that prevailed even during the sexual revolution. Kubrick and Mazursky expose Reiner and Ephron as moral midgets.
Nothing's at stake in The Story of Us except the individuals' Hollywoodish ego satisfaction, yet trashing the movie simply for its formulaic routines avoids what's disgraceful and harmful about its attitudes. Reiner-Ephron's trifling consideration of marriage oversimplifies excuses for divorce and/or fidelity. Eyes Wide Shut goes disturbingly deeper; it's about jealousy, suspicion, lust, fear, guilt. Each situation that Cruise and Kidman face?in reality or in their own imaginings?tempts them and those feelings carry a weight too easily dismissed as antiquated or based in outmoded ideas of marriage. Kubrick gives visual expression to the tension of a mate's weakening promise, the dizzying possibilities of individual sexual license. Even the controversial orgy sequence is more daring than contemporary pseudo-orgiasts will admit. Kubrick's insistence on masks and ritual (not at all limited to black mass motifs but evoking styles of distanced, abstract-art emotions and staged performance) subtly insists that sexual identity is also culturally constructed. Cruise doesn't witness a liberated revelation of libidos but a different gathering of additional, anonymous social roles. Sex without intimacy is still the most frightening?and the most comic ("Strangers in the Night" floats like elevator music in the orgy's anterooms).
Kubrick's progression through Cruise's jealousy, suspicion, lust, fear and guilt can only be disregarded if one also denies the feelings concomitant with intimacy. This makes Eyes Wide Shut irreducible even with its disastrously cast lead roles. The powerful effect of sexual fantasy on home life and street life has rarely been conveyed with such nightmarish clarity. Kubrick's title alludes to the imaginative process: those bedeviling thoughts that cannot be "unseen" but lead to compulsive behavior, dissatisfaction or, when spoken out, shame. Satirists like Reiner and Ephron never attach fear and guilt to their breakup/makeup comedies. Their characters speak out carelessly as if the movie screen were an analyst's couch. Hollywood's fraudulence keeps audiences jolly by staving off self-doubt and regret, as if the filmmakers never felt temptation or a serious thought.
Critics embarrassed themselves again with Random Hearts. Complaints that its timorous soap opera of adultery wasn't sudsy enough suggested narrow minds shut. These same critics weren't ready to accept the dilemma that piqued Kubrick's interest for more than 25 years since he first read Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle or the trouble that plagued him over three different marriages. (They took refuge in arguing Schnitzler over Kubrick, as if film were subservient to literature.) It's apparent that Kubrick's moral response must have changed Random Hearts director Sydney Pollack, inspiring his most affecting craftsmanship this decade. After working on Eyes Wide Shut, playing the complicit philanderer who explains (threatens) the ordinary trouble of Cruise's wanderings, Pollack deepened Random Hearts' conventional study of infidelity into a examination of pain. Embodying cynicism for Kubrick, Pollack was like an unrepentant Hollywood roue?a sharper portrait than the political adviser he plays to Kristin Scott Thomas' congresswoman in Random Hearts. But there's more than Clinton-era cynicism in Random Hearts' many parallels to the contemporary invasion of politicians' private lives. Pollack uses the congresswoman's embarrassment over her late husband's adultery to probe exactly the kind of suffering that Kubrick confronted?it devastates both the cheated-on congresswoman and her interaction with a Washington, DC, internal affairs cop (Harrison Ford)?another betrayed mate.
Random Hearts' study of trouble in paradise (the spouses of two adulterers meet and surrender to temptation) is simpler than Eyes Wide Shut; it has an almost French ingenuity (and master cinematographer Philippe Rousselot gets a powdery pastel look to match Pollack's almost Claude Sautet pacing). Too much Hollywood convention gets in the way of delicately sustained moods, and Dave Grusin's excruciating score cheapens what's at stake?it's mere make-out music for a movie about adults trying to work out their ravaged sensitivities. Yet despite numerous crudities, parts of Random Hearts ring eerily true?as moral reminders (like that lone, vibrating piano chord accompanying Cruise's embarrassment in Eyes Wide Shut). The Saks Fifth Avenue workers saddened by Ford's humiliation then indifferent to it match Scott Thomas' friend who laments, "If romance, that part of life, was over, I'd feel old." They show a new immorality that Kubrick disavowed but that Pollack rightly perceives as a contemporary terror. Such pop-craftsman instincts (including Ford contributing to the congresswoman's reelection campaign without asking about her politics) is part of what distinguishes Pollack's enlightened facility from Kubrick's eccentric profundity.
Ford and Scott Thomas' investigation of their exes' old haunts feels as pathological as Cruise's return to the scenes of his temptation but it's both voyeuristic and narcissistic, an eyes-wide-shut unfolding of hurt. Their visit to Miami's Club La Roca, watching a hot couple tango, recalls the marital panic in La Notte's nightclub scene?the simulated nasty triggers spiritual despair in a spangly setting. Another good, oblique moment features a pan through Ford's empty kitchen where a dripping faucet recalls a final connubial breakfast, a loss of life and trust. That's Pollack's most Kubrickian scene; it imparts a metaphysical aura to marriage and memory that returns in the final dramatic confrontation where the misfit mourners/consolers (not really lovers) argue over the bagged-up refuse of their broken feelings.
Burdened with the worst movie title since Excess Baggage, Random Hearts seriously contemplates the change of life habit that results from exposed adultery?an issue so common it makes the inanity of The Story of Us appear credible while the revelatory Eyes Wide Shut remains imperceptible to many. What good is movie art if it doesn't address experience credibly or felicitously? How stupid has movie culture become if audiences and critics can't tell the difference? In the upcoming Being John Malkovich marriage and dissatisfaction are again central issues. Next week I'll review how Spike Jonze tweaks and honors Kubrick (and Tim Burton and David Lynch and Terry Gilliam) simultaneously.