Review: 'Eyes Wide Shut' - All undressed with no place to go
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By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- From a critical standpoint, the late, great Stanley Kubrick can't lose. To suggest that one of his films is anything less than a masterpiece or that the man himself was even a brick short of unadulterated genius means setting yourself up for ridicule as a philistine.
Even casual moviegoers who wouldn't know a wide-angle lens from a box of Milk Duds are ready to pipe up and say nobody can touch Kubrick. It's been pounded into their heads for so long, there's no point in suggesting otherwise.
Judging from the initial reviews, the ducks are waddling right into line once again for "Eyes Wide Shut," the sexually charged farewell from a director who was brilliant, unyielding in his personal vision and wholly capable of making suspect films. Just like a real person.
So much has been conjectured and written about "Eyes Wide Shut" before its release that it almost seems ridiculous to introduce the key players. (Us magazine had a hilarious cover story several weeks ago, the writer wondering whether this is the sexiest film ever made ... before anybody had even seen it.)
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as Dr. William Harford and his gorgeous wife, Alice. The Harfords live charmed lives. To begin with, they look like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. But their general lifestyle is the kind of thing that keeps the unwashed masses lying awake at night. They've got a magnificent New York City apartment, a lovely little daughter and socialite friends who throw lavish parties full of champagne and flirting fashion models.
It seems a little strange that Kubrick, of all people, would want to make a film about sexual peccadilloes. He'd already broached the subject with "Lolita" (1962), which -- from the sex angle, anyway -- was terminally tamed by early-'60s production standards. But the director's auteur calling card from then on was always one of cold, calculated dehumanization.
"Barry Lyndon" (1975) features some languid sex, to be sure. But the closest Kubrick came to exploring the topic in his post-"Lolita" years was with "A Clockwork Orange" in 1971. Tellingly, the film is about a happy-go-lucky rapist.
Kubrick took so long to make his films, and re-shot individual scenes so many times, that a spontaneous erection would seem beyond the realm of his imagination. Unfortunately for "Eyes Wide Shut" (and for the few critical audience members the film will actually draw), Kubrick never really loosened up.
The story follows Cruise's character through an absurdly eventful night of almost-sex, but this is the most passive character you'll ever see in a movie that's supposed to be about one man's descent into the darker recesses of his psyche. And don't let those big block letters that scream CRUISE. KIDMAN. KUBRICK. in the ads fool you -- this is Tom Cruise's movie. Kidman is on camera for 40 minutes, tops, and disappears for the vast majority of the second act. That's too bad, because the scenes that feature Cruise and Kidman together are, far and away, the best in the film.
An important early sequence -- in which the couple shares a joint and Alice winds up telling her husband way too much about her secret sexual fantasies -- is prime Kubrick. It's funny while remaining borderline ugly, the same unnerving vibe that Kubrick successfully nurtures in all of "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), and, every now and then, in "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining" (1980).
But it sets the table for a biting black comedy that somehow never materializes. Instead, you get a slow-motion morality tale full of hot female bodies and thoroughly uneventful "mystery."
It helps that the pot-smoking scene, unlike most of the rest of the film, is relatively well written. It allows us to glean something about the characters through their words and postures, rather than forcing us to watch Cruise sleepwalk through what appears to be a series of Penthouse letters shot by Federico Fellini.
The soft-core stuff is triggered by Alice's confession that she once fantasized about a young naval officer while having sex with her husband. This is meant to generate a dark night of the soul in William, but your jaw hardly drops over the revelation. Obviously, no husband would be pleased to hear that he once stood in for a stud his wife spied in a hotel dining room. But it would make as much dramatic sense if William's emotional collapse had been triggered by finding a three-speed vibrator in Kidman's sock drawer.
The film feels like it was artfully crafted out of tons of vaguely related footage, with a talky scene near the end playing like frantic thread-tying. (In that scene, co-star Sydney Pollack systematically deflates everything that we just watched.) There's certainly little impetus for the adventure William ends up going on.
Within minutes of hearing his wife's confession, he's kissed passionately by a bereaved woman who barely knows him (and plays no role in the rest of the movie); shoved to the ground by a gang of homophobic teen-agers (who are never seen again); and propositioned by a gorgeous West Village hooker (who's revealed to be HIV-positive later in the film, not that William actually sleeps with her).
It should be noted that the hooker is a wildly optimistic variation on the lost souls who are actually roaming the streets of New York selling sex to strangers. The erotic charge of the film is based solely on the fact that every woman Cruise's character encounters is built like a brick Playmate. The underlying complexity of his carnal desires has nothing to do with it.
The most distressing scene -- dare I say bad? -- is when William attempts to sneak into a depraved masked-ball orgy full of profoundly chest-heavy women. A mask and costume are required if you're to attend, so William has to wake up a clothing store proprietor to secure an ensemble.
To begin with, the sequence takes forever, a truly ridiculous amount of time. The pace of the movie in general is excruciating. It's so full of portentous, lingering shots of Cruise doing things like ringing buzzers, unfolding newspapers and methodically sipping beers, you start to giggle after a while. It's all rather mundane. Then, completely out of nowhere, Kubrick leaps into his shrieking slapstick mode.
Leelee Sobieski, playing the proprietor's teen-age daughter, is suddenly caught red-handed frolicking in her underwear with a couple of Japanese businessmen. William is clearly shocked, and the shop owner acts enraged ... and then the costume is packed up and our hero exits for the orgy. The girl and her father are encountered again a while later, but the "pay-off" to the interlude is so obvious it verges on inconsequential.
The whole film is like this, with Cruise gawking at a variety of kinky activity that neither comments on his stance toward the world nor alters his perceptions of sexuality. It just happens because Kubrick has decided to deal with panties and breasts.
The scene that everyone will be talking about, of course, is the orgy. As always, Kubrick's visual mastery is beyond reproach. The film's lush production design and elegant lighting are dazzling, and the elaborate masks that the revelers are wearing during the debauchery create an honestly unnerving atmosphere. But the sheer silliness of what you're looking at hamstrings the sequence.
Again, this is nothing that can't be found in a Penthouse video, albeit shot by a man who had an almost mystical grasp of film's technical capabilities. Scores of unspeakably beautiful women march around servicing a variety of masked men (no, the Lone Ranger's not there), with incense and red robes lending the proceedings a religious undercurrent.
But can anybody in her or his right mind take this seriously? At least Fellini pulled out the stops from the first minute when he wanted to get surreal. Here, realism fades into surrealism, then into outright foolishness. Morbidly paced foolishness.
The ultimate point, when it's all finally over, seems to be that everyone has sexual fantasies, but it's absurd to let them drive you to distraction if you've got someone who loves you waiting at home. Anyone from Ann Landers to a priest could've told you that. It doesn't take a genius.
"Eyes Wide Shut" is the ultimate nudie film. Wild sex at the orgy is partially obscured at all times, but the naked women stroll around like they're looking for detergent at an A&P. There's also bad language. The entire movie is encapsulated in one shot, during which Cruise verrrrry slowly leans in to kiss a well-built female corpse, then verrrrry slowly pulls back without doing it. Rated R. Better bring a lunch: It's 159 minutes long.
"Eyes Wide Shut" is a production of CNN Interactive sister company Warner Bros., a Time-Warner property.
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