When to quit? When is it time to hang it up, sell the house, and move to a condo in some sprawling necropolis in Orange County or Orlando, and wait for the inevitable tap of the bony finger upon the shoulder? Orson Welles probably should have quit before it was necessary to sell no wine before its time; instead, his last film role was the voice of Unicron in the Transformers movie. Perhaps you remember it? Sadly for Orson, someone does. Then there are the lucky bastards like Stanley Kubrick.
After taking what can only be described as a ridiculous amount of time—three years—to complete his latest (and last) film, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick died. Kubrick’s death was lamented by some as the passing of a genius. And it was celebrated by others as the none-too-soon, don’t-let-the door-hit-you-in-the-ass departure of a pompous, sententious old codger who hadn’t made a really good film in a generation. With the release of Eyes Wide Shut we are, at last, allowed to decide for ourselves.
Eyes Wide Shut is "inspired by" a novel called Traumnovelle by German writer Arthur Schnitzler. No, I didn’t read it either. The story concerns a well-to-do young couple in New York City—the Harfords, Bill and Alice, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. And they aren’t just acting, they really are a couple.
At a lavish party at the home of a wealthy friend, Bill and Alice both find themselves in mildly dangerous situations, as far as their marriage is concerned. Alice enjoys a dance, and a more than generous helping of Austro-Hungarian cheese, at the hands of a seductive European aristocrat while Bill is nearly torn in two by a couple of frisky young models and then saves a naked hooker from an O.D. After the party, they go home and talk about it; then Bill plunges into New York’s sexual underground—and nearly destroys himself and his family. In other words, the sorts of things that happen to my girlfriend and me, and many other couples, virtually every weekend.
Stanley Kubrick, as we all know now that he’s dead, was famous for two things—only one of which other directors wished they had. The first was the rigid control he exercised over his movies. They came out when he wanted and how he wanted them to, or they didn’t come out at all. Who else but Kubrick could have made Tom and Nicole wade through over 100 days of shooting and almost three years of re-shoots? The other is that he moved to London and refused to come back, hoping perhaps that being that much closer to Europe would make his films that much more important.
This second decision is clearly the work of a deeply troubled mind. Anyone who’s ever been there will tell you that no sensible person would renounce America for England. It proved to be a troubling decision for his movies, too. Like Lolita and Full Metal Jacket before it, Eyes Wide Shut suffers profoundly from Kubrick’s refusal to leave England.
Never before have I seen a New York City so devoid of noise and life as the one Kubrick gives us in this film. But it's not just visually that the movie suffers. The ideas and spirit behind it seem equally isolated and artificial—the hermetic mutterings of an old man barricaded behind the high walls of his English country estate, a man bewilderingly out of touch.
In one particular scene, Tom Cruise wanders the streets of Greenwich Village and is accosted by a gang of young toughs who mistake him for a homosexual. The gang pushes him against a car and then taunts and threatens him, and then leaves. Not only does the scene feel synthetic, and overly convenient, it is obviously the work of someone who hasn’t been to the Village in a very long time.
This misreading, not just of the particulars of New York neighborhoods, but of the entire spirit of the age in that city, suffuses Eyes Wide Shut. At the end of his Dantean wanderings through New York’s sexual underground, Bill finds himself in an opulent mansion where a masked orgy is taking place. So secret is this gathering that even talking about it can get you killed, or worse. Except that orgies are now covered in the Friday entertainment section of the Times and S&M clubs are almost as omnipresent as the Gap. The final evidence of just how isolated Kubrick is from popular culture comes when we learn that a prostitute Bill has met has AIDS. That’s right, a prostitute with AIDS. I know, I was shocked too.
Even stranger is that despite having more naked women than Boogie Nights, Eyes Wide Shut is about as erotic as a 1950s Army hygiene film. There is a coldness (not to mention a hypocrisy—quick find the naked men) that undercuts its eroticism. The naked women seem like little more than props. They are there to make the audience proud of itself for seeing such an adult—I mean mature—movie.
Eyes Wide Shut has its moments, but they are largely ignored—as is Nicole Kidman who’s left to fret at home like a stalwart heroine in a John Ford movie while Tom goes out in pursuit of some hard lessons. In the end, we are treated to two-and-a-half hours of beautiful images nearly ruined by a painfully overwrought score; and burdened with a theme that is little more than cheap and crabby pedantry.
Kubrick, it seems, got out not a moment to soon. I hear that when they found his body he had just finished watching his brand new DVD recording of the Tranformers movie.
A rebuttal of Weisfeld's review is here.