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August 31, 2014

Six Degrees of Separation

by Franz Patrick


Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

A wealthy couple, Ouisa (Stockard Channing) and Flan (Donald Sutherland), wake up one day and suspect that their place has been ransacked. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that nothing is missing. But something strange did happen the night before.

While discussing business with a friend (Ian McKellen), an African-American young man, Paul (Will Smith), knocks on the door and claims to have been stabbed and mugged. When asked why he chose this place as refuge instead of a hospital, Paul explains that he knows Flan and Ouisa’s son in Harvard. Unbeknownst to couple, however, Paul is a confidence man, pulling the same tricks that have worked before to anyone gullible enough to listen.

“Six Degrees of Separation,” based on the play and screenplay by John Guare, has a script so pointed in its criticism of white New York socialites, I almost did not mind its occasional elliptical pacing coupled with distractingly quick cuts when it is time for various couples to tell their stories of the charming black man they welcomed into their exquisitely decorated homes. Its sense of humor is sly, almost like a striptease at times. Instead of always going for the jugular in terms of how pretentious and racist the socialites are, they are given a chance to speak.

And the devil is in the detail. From the way they tell their own versions of the stories, we learn about their varying degrees of prejudices. It is amusing because almost all of them consider themselves so worldly, so readily able to discuss art, throwing out names of plays, artists, and literature in daily conversations, they forget that being knowledgeable of such things is not tantamount to actually experiencing life out there in the streets and having to work just to make ends meet. Even though they know a lot, in a way, they also know not so much.

But the film is not only successful because of its style of criticism. The acting is consistently magnetic and surprisingly touching. Smith’s performance dominates the first half and Channing absolutely shines in the latter half. Smith polishes Paul with a cool glaze of intelligence and huggable earnestness. Although we learn a little bit more about him as the picture goes on, I enjoyed that even until the very end, Paul remains an enigma, very appropriate because we mostly learn about him through hearsay.

Channing is wonderful as a wife of an art dealer and a mother of very unhappy children. The way she unspools Ouisa is interesting because of the way she slowly realizes how unbearably dreary her existence has become. The eventual, although slight, mother-son affection Paul and Ouisa share comes across as believable because they manage to fill each other’s void somehow. Since their relationship is so expertly handled, I wished that the acting of Flan and Ouisa’s children are less jarring by means of excessive yelling. While understandable that they are supposed to be brats, the representation is too obvious. I did not care much for the screaming matches over the telephone or in person.

Directed by Fred Schepisi, “Six Degrees of Separation” is most effective when it reels in emotions on the verge of an explosion. Although a comedy for the most part, there is real pain in these people’s lives, very much visible in their eyes as they yearn for acceptance.

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