Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Day 12: Carnal Knowledge

Sandy: You can't make fucking your life's work.

While watching Carnal Knowledge, it struck me how perfect an actor Jack Nicholson is for director Mike Nichols. Both men seem to have an impeccable understanding for the comedy found in every moment of high drama and the drama found in every moment of comedy. Carnal Knowledge is full of moments where Nicholson says something that makes you laugh while it simultaneously makes you cringe. It’s a raw, nerve-jangling movie about misogyny, sexual dysfunction, and male ego that pulls no punches. It’s powerful and honest from moment to moment, but there’s something ultimately off-putting about it as a whole that keeps it from gelling into a sum greater than its parts.

The movie opens, not unlike a Woody Allen movie, with credits over a black screen. It’s hard to put the similarity out of your mind as two men talk over the credit sequence about the kind of women they would like to have in their lives. The two men are Sandy, played by Art Garfunkel, and Jonathan, played by Nicholson. At the movie’s start, Sandy is nerdy, shy around women, and virginal. Jonathan is brash, confident, and equally virginal (though he hides this quality in himself behind a false bravado). The structure of the movie presents vignettes from their lives (beginning in college and ending in middle age), during which they fall in love, pursue relationships with various women, and break up with them.

This structure is compelling, but it is also one of the problems with the movie. The jumps in time are followed by some laboring on the script’s part to bring the viewer up to speed on where the two are in their lives and what girls they’re with. At these moments, the movie’s dialogue, otherwise elegant and stylish, is too expositional. Indeed, the overall pace of the movie is interrupted at these time shifts, since the movie has to pause while we get our bearings. It’s an admirable concept, depicting the characters’ lives as defined by their relationships with women, but the execution didn’t work for me.

What really does work in the movie is Nicholson. He’s a joy to watch as he sinks his teeth into the script (and at times, the scenery), creating a character that is realistically angry at women. He’s not a two-dimensional cad, but a very, very confused man. When a woman tells him that all she wants is him, Nicholson screams, “I’m taken!..... by me!” The beat between the two lines is both absurdly funny and bitterly honest. Art Garfunkel also has a nice turn here, surprisingly convincing as Nicholson’s nebbishy foil. He is equally unjust to women, though he means well and hides his anger in sublimation.

And that’s just it, the two characters mean well, but they suffer from misogynistic tendencies; they treat women as sexual objects first, trophies second, and actual people never. This, too, is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films, but Jules Feiffer’s script doesn’t let these two off the hook the way Allen does. Where Allen’s films surrender to the misogyny of their main characters, at best (celebrate it at worst), Carnal Knowledge examines the results of the misogyny, not just on those it hurts, but on the men who exhibit it. At one point, Nicholson launches into an angry tirade at his live-in girlfriend and then collapses and asks her to leave him. “I’d marry you if you left me,” he sighs.

Another problem in the movie has is some stylistic choices by Nichols. The script is somewhat stagy and Nichols is certainly adept at transforming stage work to film (I’ve only seen the 1st half of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but that was more than enough to impress me), but here, for every neat trick that works there’s one that doesn’t. It’s emotionally resonant when a prostitute, kneeling between Jack Nicholson’s legs while reciting a monologue, is framed in front of wallpaper that is constantly moving upward (lending the appearance that she’s going down (heh) the whole time she is speaking) but not so much when Nicholson wines and dines a woman and the restaurant revolves around their table.

At all other times, Nichols’s direction is fantastic. This is first an actor’s movie and then a writer’s movie, but Nichols is able to put his own stamp on it. The camera setups are lovely and the blocking of the actors in relation to the camera is delightful. The characters are constantly moving into the foreground, the background, off camera, into light, and out of light in accordance with their emotional state. There’s a close-up of Candice Bergen laughing and laughing as she flirts with both characters that goes on so long it crosses the line between comedy and drama at least twice.

Carnal Knowledge is a fantastic movie in fits and starts. It’s a pity that these bits couldn’t have come together, for if they had, it probably would have been one of the all-time greats. As it is, it’s worth it just to see Jack Nicholson at the top of his game and a script that never flinches. Some of its sexual politics are a bit dated in this day and age, but the emotions on display have, unfortunately, never gone out of style.