Husbands and Wives (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) wait for their friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), in their home so they can head out to dinner together. Gabe and Judy are expecting to eat Chinese food, but what they do not expect is to swallow the news about Sally and Jack getting a divorce. The couple discloses it so flippantly, Gabe is left not knowing what to think or say while Judy responds with a smidgen of hostility. This is a surprise to Gabe and Judy, to say the least, because they have always believed that Jack and Sally share a great marriage. Meanwhile, the divorce forces Gabe and Judy to inspect what does not work in their marriage and face the possibility that perhaps what they have, too, is beyond repair.
“Husband and Wives,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is a picture that is alive, so observant about human psychology and behavior, that looking at the way the characters move and react as well as listening to them speak and be quiet recalls the feelings of reading a novel so immersive, you keep wanting to know more about what happens next even after encountering the final word on the last page.
The four principal performers are not only equal to the task of creating complicated and fascinating characters, they are attuned to one another’s rhythms so no one shines more brightly than the other. For instance, I admired the way Davis allows Sally to be so shrill and controlling and yet at same time opening her up just a little so that we can feel the pain and shame that she grapples with for not being more thoughtful toward her former husband when he needed her most. Pollack gives Jack a certain level of exhaustion from constantly being corrected and criticized by his ex-wife. He is the first to decide to search for happiness, however he defines the word, and just when we think he has it, Jack starts to question the value of his newfound relationship from behind Pollack’s spectacles.
On the other hand, Farrow plays Judy almost like a mouse in voice and the way she scuttles about the apartment. And yet, arguably, she is the smartest of the four—most interesting in that maybe she is not even aware of it—because she has a way of always getting what she wants. Allen, sporting his usual but signature nervous energy, makes us feel for Gabe that even when the thought of having an affair crosses his mind, we do not hate him for it.
The screenplay treats each character like he or she is worthy of being understood. This is reflected in way Allen controls the camera during confrontations. When someone is being attacked with verbal daggers, we are behind that person’s shoulder to make it appear as though we are also being criticized. Then, when that person on the defense takes the offensive position, the camera floats behind the other character’s shoulder so we get to hear where that person is coming from.
All the while the focus is on the dueling faces and how their expressions change throughout a course of a fight. If I were the one behind the camera, I would not have done it any differently. This is because, at least for me, when I confront another person, my eyes go directly on the other’s face to see which of my words trigger the most response: To learn which ones hurt so I can use them again during the heat of the moment and, conversely, to learn which words not to use when things have settled down.
The picture has the courage to poke fun of itself, too. Gabe, a college professor, decides to let one of his most brilliant students, Rain (Juliette Lewis), read the novel he is working on. Though she claims to love what she has read, she criticizes Gabe, which is really Allen, the director, only under a different name, for his ideas especially how he perceives women. Rain’s assessment of the novel can be taken as a direct criticism of the film which is very smart because it is one step ahead of the thing I plan on addressing initially. That playful self-awareness adds an additional mirror alongside one already being held in front us.
“Husbands and Wives” is able to successfully balance quiet desperation as much as the expressions that demand attention. It stumbles a little toward the end, however, when it uses a storm as a symbol of intensity boiling from within each character as well as the washing away of animosities. It is an elementary storytelling technique and yet so heavy-handed that I am reluctant to say that the writer-director has gotten away with it. Still, it is astute about what it wants to say and perceptive about how we might react to it.
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite the fact that Michael (Dustin Hoffman) is a good actor, he finds himself unable to book an acting job in New York City. Casting directors tell him that they need someone a little older, a little younger, or that he has the wrong height. The truth is he has the tendency to argue with whomever is in charge and eventually no one wants to work with him. George (Sydney Pollack) knows this and, as Michael’s agent and friend, he tells the frustrated actor the reality of the situation: Michael Dorsey is not bookable. Taking this to heart, Michael creates a new identity: Dorothy Michaels, an aging actress with a personality so forceful and confident, right away she snags a role in a soap opera.
I think cross-dressing is difficult to pull off in the movies. In good hands, genuinely funny situational comedy can be created through mistaken identities coupled with inspired physical gags. On the other hand, the material might end up cynical, offensive, and hateful. Many people equate cross-dressing with homosexuality, the latter often being feared and reviled. But director Sydney Pollack fills “Tootsie” with a lot of positive energy. It is not just a movie about a man dressing up as a woman. It is also a farce. It comments on lives of actors who are struggling to make it in the big city, it shows what might happen behind the screens of a soap opera, and it underlines the unfair treatment of working women.
The script glistens with terrific dialogue. What is projected onto the screen and what can be heard from the speakers pop because the performers are backed by strings of words that someone might actually say. Because the exchanges have verve, a few jokes that do not quite work, for instance, are easily overlooked. I smiled through them because I know that sometimes people try make jokes but the jokes are only funny in their heads or their way of delivering punchlines are a bit off. Since the dialogue is realistic but fun to listen to, some of its flaws become part of the charm.
Hoffman’s performance amused me. I would not say that he makes a very convincing woman, but I could not stop staring at him. In my eyes, he gave two performances: as a man who is angry that no one will cast him and as a man dressed up as woman who has a genuine fear of being found out. The anger and the fear are played for laughs, but there are enough details embedded in Hoffman’s carefully calculated performance that serious undercurrents are detectable by perspicacious audiences. Both Michael and Dorothy are enjoyable to watch because Hoffman’s approach is fresh: he does not turn them into caricatures.
What did not work for me is the subplot involving Julie (Jessica Lange), Dorothy’s co-star in the soap opera. While the progress of the friendship between Julie and Dorothy is occasionally interesting, I grew tired of Julie’s constant whining. Most annoying is the problem between her and her boyfriend—their situation is not only stereotypical, it is also underwritten. As a result, I did not buy into Julie’s inevitable changes. Also, there is a line uttered somewhere in the middle that should have allowed Julie to figure out Dorothy’s true identity. It is a glaring misstep because Julie is not stupid but she is treated like she was. It would have been surprising and more challenging if Julie had known earlier that Dorothy was a man. It would have provided an additional twist to the story.
And yet despite the miscalculation, “Tootsie,” adapted to the screen by Larry Gelbart, Barry Levinson, Elaine May, and Murray Schisgal, remains entertaining because it continues to move forward, never allowing a joke to go stale while on the plate. It juggles several funny assumptions, implications, and situations without drawing too much attention on how clever it all is. If it had felt too self-aware, the point might have rested on the cosmetics, the wig, and the outfits instead of the man underneath the disguise.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After the death of a patient, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) walks around New York City and enters a jazz club where one of his former classmates, who dropped out of medical school, is supposed to play the piano. Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) tells Bill that he has another gig later that night—one that is particularly strange because he is required to play blindfolded. In addition, the event’s location is held at a different place every time and he is told only an hour prior where it will take place. Piqued with curiosity, Bill insists that he goes with Nick to the party but, clearly, it is not open to guests. One needs to provide the password at the gate and the attendee to be costumed and masked.
“Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s final work, is a film that functions on several planes. On one hand, it works as an exploration of marriage and the roles spouses play in order to stay married. On the other, it is a descent into a nightmarish dreamworld which involves a thriving secret society that is willing to do whatever it takes to keep its business hidden. It is a beautiful-looking film from top to bottom, but the aesthetic enhances the experience of us getting to know Bill as a husband and as a man, which at times are mutually exclusive spheres.
What it is not is a simplistic skin flick meant to titillate but offering little substance. The dialogue is rich with passion, guilt, and frustration—particularly memorable is the scene where Bill’s wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), confesses to her partner of nine years that just a summer ago, she contemplated of having an affair with a young Naval officer. The scene is one that constantly evolves. It begins with a level of sensuality. As the argument heats up, amusing elements are introduced and we are left to wonder whether the space between the lovers will dissolve or grow. It is exciting that it is entirely possible to go either way. Finally, the scene ends with a catharsis and sadness, followed by a phone call that brings terrible news.
Cruise and Kidman’s performances are colorful and engaging. Kidman is particularly entertaining in playing a character who is under the influence, whether it be of one too many alcoholic beverages or marijuana. Though Kidman’s screen time is about a third of her co-star, she hits the nail on the head in every one of them. Notice the way she plays Alice, who is a little bit drunk at a Christmas party, when a man named Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont) expresses his interest to take her upstairs to, supposedly, show her some art. What could have been a tacky scene turns into an elegant power play. Admittedly, I wanted to see her commit an act of infidelity. I suspected that she also wanted to but her senses are not yet numb to the ring on her finger.
On the other side of the spectrum, Cruise plays Bill almost stoic most of the time but he is never boring. His curiosity tends to lead to one close call after another, whether it be of getting caught by his wife as he considers being physically intimate with another woman or being physically hurt by members of a secret society after they discover his trespasses. As the picture goes on, we are all the more convinced that he is out of his depth. There is suspense when his hundred dollar bills and the title in front of his name are no longer able to save him from what must happen.
Some argue that the set is never a convincing stand-in for New York City. They miss the point completely. I believe the exterior shots are not meant to look real, just as outer appearances of the characters do not accurately provide a real representation of themselves. The interior shots, on the other hand, are entirely different. These are very detailed—from the paintings on walls, books on shelves, bottles and glasses of wine on tables, to textures of carpets and rugs in every room. We get a sense of how they live, what they like, where their interests lie.
Based on the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, “Eyes Wide Shut” challenges the mind and the senses. Some may even find it to be a physical trial due to its running time of two and a half hours. But one thing cannot be denied: A dark artistry is at work here and once one has adapted to its rhythm, one will not want to look away.
Firm, The (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a John Grisham novel, “The Firm” is about a Harvard Law School graduate named Mitch McDeere (played by Tom Cruise) who receives an offer from Bendini, Lambert & Locke with an offer that surpasses other firms’ with benefits that no man in his right mind would refuse. McDeere’s wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn), coming from a rich family, tells her husband that it’s too good to be true but McDeere ignores his wife’s concern, only to find out later on that the firm he works for are tied to organized crime like the Mob. I’m at the borderline whether or not to recommend this film because even though it managed to entertain me more than half of the time, I didn’t find any reason for it to be two hours and thirty minutes long. Though its story is shrewd, it’s not efficient in its way of telling the story. It purposely piles a stack of one complex idea after another to the point where I found myself giving up trying to find out how one thing relates to another and just observe how it would all play out. It’s a shame because this movie had powerful performances, not just from Cruise, but also from Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook and Holly Hunter. Also, I don’t know if it’s just me but I thought there were some unintentionally funny scenes during the last thirty minutes of the picture. Even though what’s being presented on screen is serious, the soundtrack suggests otherwise which was aided by Cruise’ tendency to overact. Maybe Sydney Pollack, the director, wanted to achieve something different but that lack of agreement between images and tone took me out of the experience. I feel like if it had been darker and edgier, I would enjoyed “The Firm” a lot more instead of just giving it a slight recommendation. I was very interested in the story and the way McDeere untangles himself from the trickiest situations but the execution could’ve been stronger.