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Movie Review

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in "Eyes Wide Shut"

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Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material. 2 hours, 39 minutes.
Publication date: Jul. 16, 1999
Review by Jim Shelby
Released: (1999)

The most agonizing aspect of this review is having to put any reference to director Stanley Kubrick in the past tense. Kubrick, of course, died at the age of 70 in March, five days after screening his new film to his leading actors, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick had not made a film for the last 12 years, but his body of work, conservatively, can be said to have changed the way we see, think of and make motion pictures. This legendary director made films on his own demanding terms and resolutely insisted on the time and circumstances to get things the way he wanted them. Is this really the film he wanted?

His new movie can't help but be weighed down by its unenviable position as the final word from The Master. He stretched filming to an unprecedented 15 months, and a whole raft of crazy rumors emerged from the closed shooting sessions in Pinewood Studios. For instance, the whole world wants to know just how graphic Tom and Nicole get for the camera. These deafening distractions aside, what's the movie like?

Kubrick is famous for his excruciating perfectionism with his actors and crew (actors working with him describe 30 takes to say "Hi, Jack"), so one can only assume he made the film he wanted to make. For example, the grainy film stock used in the entire movie looks as if it was shot in video and transferred to film. There is frequently an old-photograph look in the evening scenes; this suggests the environment from the '20s novel "Traumnovelle" by Arthur Schnitzler, upon which the film is based, but it also translates into a modern edginess that is very effective. His visual expertise depicting a world going up in sexual flames is apparent in scene after scene.

But feeling a bit like the child seeing the Emperor's bum and saying so, I've got to say that this movie feels long and has an extraordinarily high number of clunky, banal scenes and performances. Ouch. Was he going for some feeling of sexually charged alienation in every aspect of the characters' lives? Again, I think in Kubrick's case we need to assume he got what he wanted, so the film is a puzzle to me.

The first sequence has a compelling breathlessness to it. We open with a glimpse of Kidman's naked body from the rear, before the credits have really started: a shot both shocking and disarming. The audience, prepared for almost anything, settles in for what may be coming. Soon, though, we realize it is just half of the gorgeous professional couple, Bill and Alice Harford, dressing for a party, and there is an intimacy as they prepare for the evening that feels both natural and charged. Their sprawling New York City apartment looks luxurious and lived in. We wonder what sort of kinky event they're off to. It's soon clear that they are merely attending an elegant soiree at the home of Victor Ziegler (Stanley Pollack), one of Dr. Harford's wealthy patients.

But as Pollack greets the couple, the first sign of trouble, which recurs throughout this uneven film, appears. Dialogue among many of the supporting characters is awkward and stilted, as if any freshness or realism had been directed into the ground. If the demanding and obsessive director made these poor people go through some of these scenes 50 times, it's no wonder any life has been squeezed out of them. And truly, some scenes are stinkers. The Hungarian (Rade Serbedzijais) flirting with Nicole at the party is nearly embarrassing in his supposed smoothness. His archaic efforts at seduction simply strain believability.

The legendary orgy scene, which threatened the film with an NC-17 rating until Kubrick digitally blocked some offending genitalia in the American release, is visually extraordinary but truly awful: Beautiful masks adorn the celebrants; a haunting white down-light slathers an unforgettable ritual in which the women first disrobe. It's a passionless and painstakingly choreographed minuet of movers and shakers taking part in joyless anonymous (masked!) sex, with everyone lounging about in studied poses--women thin, naked and perfect; men cloaked; all very serious. And as soon as anyone opens his mouth, the entire enterprise becomes a joke: "Stop! Take me! I am ready to redeem him!" or "You must get away while there's still a chance." The sad and awkward dialogue (perhaps extremely faithful to the original story), which actors were generally unable to bring to the '90s with much conviction, evoked unintended snorts from the audience.

The news is not all bleak. Two scenes stand out as remarkable, both due to Nicole Kidman. The first is a spectacular sequence when she reveals to husband Bill an erotic longing, unconsummated, she had for a man the previous summer. Her performance is complicated, layered, vulnerable and nicely surprising. This revelation sets Bill on an erotic odyssey for the remainder of the film. She has certainly come a ways since "Days of Thunder." The second scene, in which she recalls a dream that partially parallels her wandering husband's experience, is of equal dramatic caliber. Nice work, Nicole. The time that Kubrick and the leading actors spent on the material is obvious, and sometimes it pays off.

Cruise brings the tight-lipped earnestness of, say, "A Few Good Men" to his role here, and frequently he appears to be working awfully hard. In nearly every scene where Cruise talks to a supporting character--with his secretary, with a cafÇ waitress, with a nurse in an emergency room--there is a staged and awkward quality. Sydney Pollack's scenes have a similarly stilted, nearly amateur feel. It's a real shame that Harvey Keitel, originally cast in the role, couldn't have overcome his artistic differences (or whatever) with the director and stayed in the film. Is all this intentional? I think it's unfortunate casting and overdirecting.

I came away depressed that there would be no more work from this obsessive auteur and a bit disappointed in his final intriguing effort. There is a lot of frustrating, rough going in this supremely controlled and visually enticing enterprise. Still, it is Kubrick, and confused intensity from this director is a better bet than nearly anyone else's best work.

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