The Accidental Tourist (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Macon (William Hurt) and Sarah (Kathleen Turner) lost their young son just a year ago, and both are still very much grieving and unable to move on. Sarah wants a divorce because Macon, a writer of travel guides, is not always home to provide the emotional support she needs. So they can move on together, Macon suggests that they should attempt to have another child. Sarah is appalled by the idea. For her, the only choice is separation.
The most impressive aspect of “The Accidental Tourist,” based on the screenplay by Frank Galati and Lawrence Kasdan, is its ability to hone in on the universal emotion that is grief, mainly from a father’s perspective, and supporting two ideas: there is no right or wrong way to deal with death and grief does not come with an expiration date.
Because the material deals with the subjectivity of emotions, it is wise that, for the most part, we are left to our own devices. We are encouraged to ask why characters think or act the way they do. For instance, I think there is feeling of hopelessness in the marriage because Macon and Sarah believe that they should have already moved on even though it has been only after a year since their child’s death. Although they try very hard to tell themselves that they are or should be past it, they just aren’t. Something is missing.
The film is special because it is brave enough to touch upon the western idea that grief should have a time limit. I may get over a death after two months. You may get over it after five years. It does not make me insensitive; it does not make you hypersensitive. Each of us just tend to process emotions in different ways.
Unlike Sarah, Macon deals with his sadness by shutting down emotionally, being more reticent and inexpressive. As he jumps from one plane to another, he sits on his chair with a book wide open but we can almost feel him not really reading or processing what his eyes have seen, just staring blankly at the pages, wondering what has gone wrong. We take note that he is an organized man who has grown to fix anything that appears inconvenient. But death is anything but convenient. He feels powerless because he cannot undo or fix a life that has been lost. Hurt plays Macon with searing emotional pain, but a lot of it is hidden underneath by his character’s need to complete his work and responsibilities. It is very sad because he does not seem to be aware that he owes it to himself to feel the magnitude of the situation before he gets a real shot toward acceptance.
Meeting a dog trainer, Muriel (Geena Davis), is critical to his journey. He finds her to be rather odd. She is not afraid to express what she thinks and what she wants. Although she is a stranger, being with her summons feelings of interacting with a great friend who extends a helping hand without ever being asked. There is a warmth to her and Macon is initially–and understandably–repelled by it. After all, when something very hot and something very cold mix, a reaction is usually observed.
There is a great subplot involving Macon, his two brothers (David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley Jr.) and sister (Amy Wright) living in one roof. All are over forty years of age and still–or recently–single. Perhaps the reason why is because they have grown accustomed to their comfortable routines. Having to break from the usual is inconvenient–there is that word again–and almost unthinkable. When Macon’s publisher, Julian (Bill Pullman), begins to have feelings for Rose, Macon’s sister, the brothers are threatened. They hope that the relationship will not get to the next level simply because they will have to adapt and that requires effort. Macon’s grief and dysfunctional siblings mirror each other in surprising ways.
Based on the novel by Anne Tyler, “The Accidental Tourist,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, is purposely slow and somber but it has moments of genuine comedy even if the characters do not crack a smile or laugh. We are on the outside looking in. If we can feel their unhappiness so strongly, imagine being in their shoes.