Friday, September 6, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Directed by: Paul Mazursky.
Written by: Paul Mazursky & Larry Tucker.
Starring: Natalie Wood (Carol), Robert Culp (Bob), Elliott Gould (Ted), Dyan Cannon (Alice).
There are films that are very much of their time and place – and Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is one of those films. This was the 5th highest grossing movie of that year – which is remarkable when you consider that nothing that isn’t part of a franchise can come close to that anymore. It is about two middle aged couples at the end of the swinging ‘60s, who may feel like they missed the sexual revolution that the previous decade brought on for the younger people. The film was known then – and remains now – as the wife swapping movie, which is odd considering that in the end (spoiler alert) the couples don’t actually swap wives, and even more odd considering the idea isn’t even verbalized until the last 15 minutes or so. There are a lot of things about the movie that mark it as a film from the late 1960s – but I will say, that the film is surprisingly kind of modern, even 50 years later, in its view of infidelity and sexual freedom. You couldn’t imagine a mainstream film today tackling this issue – and not many indies would either. It is a film that is all talk – and much of that talk sounds like it was from 50 years ago – but it is well acted and written Mazursky and his cast. It does feel its age – and not always easily – and the characters are all, in one way or another insufferable, in ways I’m not quite sure is intentional. But the next time you hear about naval gazing, bored, entitled Millennials, you may want to think about this film, and realized that Millennials grandparents were essentially the same.
The film begins with Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) at one of those New Age, hippie retreats – meant to get you in touch with your feelings, and positive ways to express those feelings. To live in honesty. They seem to be resistant at first, but over the course of the weekend (condensed to about 5 minutes) they are won over by the methods. When they return to their lives, Bob goes off to shoot his new documentary – and when he returns, admits that he slept with his young assistant. Carol, to the surprise of Bob – and perhaps even herself, doesn’t much care. It isn’t that she doesn’t love Bob – but that she understood why he did it. Eventually, she too, will have a lover – and Bob catches them when he comes home early. He cares a little more than she did – but they talk it out, and he finds he’s okay with it too. They share all of this with their best friends Ted and Alice (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon) – who are shocked – shocked! – by this, but for different reasons. She is shocked that he cheated in the first place – he’s shocked that he was dumb enough to confess. They predict that it will all end disastrously – but, of course, are also intrigued in ways they don’t even admit to each other.
Most of the movie then is all talk – and very reliant on its actors to pull off. There is a reason why Gould and Cannon were nominated were Oscars for their performances, and Culp and Wood were not – and not just because they were in the Supporting categories instead of the leads. It’s because we see them process the changes in their friends – and what it means for them, and for their own marriage. They talk it through with each other. Cannon in particular is quite good, as this whole thing forces her to confront some issues she didn’t really want to think about – in conversations with Gould, or her therapist. This isn’t to say that Culp and Wood aren’t good – they are – but I’m not convinced their roles are as complex. Also, they are at times nearly insufferable with their navel gazing conversations. Gould and Cannon feel honest – like they are genuinely trying to figure out what to do next. Culp and Wood are trying to convince themselves they are okay with this – whether they are or not.
Some see the ending of the movie – where they don’t actually go through with the wife swap, or the orgy, as a cop out. I don’t. I think it makes sense for both of these couples, given where they are, to flirt with the idea – and then back off. Gould and Cannon aren’t there yet – they may never get there. And Culp and Wood may be okay with an open marriage – but it’s something else entirely when its your best friends. The very end of the movie is one of those weird things you could only see in the 1960s – and I cannot imagine worked well then, and sure doesn’t now – no matter how strange it is (it feels like Mazursky had no idea how to actually end this thing, and so here this weirdness).
Bob & Carol & Ted &Alice is not a great film. There’s a reason why, even if you know the film, it hasn’t stuck around in the public consciousness as much as say Mike Nichols The Graduate (1967) has. And there’s a reason why I don’t think it ranks all that highly on Mazursky’s filmography – which includes some much better films like Harry and Tonto (1974) – which won Art Carney an Oscar or An Unmarried Woman (1978), which was a much more mature film about middle aged sexuality and marriage. But it’s an interesting film – as a time capsule for its time and place, and to remember a time when a film like this could be in the top five in Box Office in America for the year. There is a superhero or live action animated lion to be seen here.

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