Streisand's 'Tides' is manipulative, yet absorbingly moving

MOVIE REVIEW

December 25, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

There's no doubt that Barbra Streisand's "Prince of Tides" is hugely entertaining in that grand, old-movie way. I watched it raptly, even though I despised it.

It's crass, vain and manipulative; it's also broad, moving, absorbing and passionate. It's like La Streisand herself: bigger than life, sweller than life, louder than life, lifier than life.

Derived from a novel of the same name by the poor man's William Styron, Pat Conroy, it's fundamentally an orchestration of elaborate victimization fantasies. Everybody in it lasciviously blames their problems on everybody else in it. Then at the end, after nearly two hours of celebrating bitterness, it blithely changes tunes and argues for "forgiveness" in its last minutes much in the way, after reveling in sin and skin for 19 reels, Cecil B. DeMille used to revert to pious Christianity and heavenly choirs in the last one to buy his way out of a morals rap.

Playing a New York smart-set psychiatrist named Susan Lowenstein, Streisand is laboring to save suicidal poet Savannah Wingo (Melinda Dillon), the extravagant creation of an extravagantly dysfunctional family, from herself. Savannah is now comatose, so Lowenstein must find an alternate, but parallel, mind whose depths she can plumb in order to unlock the dark secrets of the past and unlock to doorway to mental health which leads to the pathway to creativity, along the highway of happiness near the sugarplum mountains.

Enter Tom Wingo, Savannah's twin. Enter Nick Nolte, recast as Greek god, with gushing blond locks, a great tan, an athlete's bod and enough repression and denial to keep Herr Doktor Freud and his Vienna apostles scribbling papers until the next century. Tom agrees to come up from his rusticating outside Charleston (he's a bitter cuckold and unemployed football coach) to be the substitute goat, although professing a contempt fer all this mumbo-jumbo. In exchange, he agrees to help Dr. Lowenstein's surly prep school son (Streisand's son Jason Gould) master the skills of football, to which he's inclined.

Of course in the book, the Wingo-Lowenstein relationship and ultimate affair was a minor note in a long and rambling narrative that encompassed the lives of mother and father Wingo and the third sibling, a Vietnam vet tragically turned eco-guerrilla fighting to preserve the South Carolina island of his birth from a nuclear energy plant. In the movie, the Lowenstein-Wingo match is more than a major chord -- it's the whole damn movie. (The Vietnam vet is all but bumped completely.)

All right. It's her movie, she's the director, she got the picture made, that's all right. She's a beautiful, talented woman and she and the surprisingly expressive Nolte have great rapport. It's fine, it works, even if the filmmaking relies on the usual vernacular or romantic cliche. It's "The Way We Were," not the way it is.

What doesn't work in the picture is its glib, almost campy sense of the human mind. The subtext here is the detective work of psychoanalysis, and the movie is basically a reconstruction of the dysfunctional Wingos, with a harsh and often violent father (reduced to caricature) and an often scheming and ambitious mother (Kate Nelligan, one degree more complicated than caricature). But it turns out that the event which so haunted the Wingo progeny had nothing to do with Mom and Dad: It was a grotesque invasion by outsiders, completely unrelated to the dynamics of the dysfunction.

The script by Conroy and Becky Johnston reduces everything to homily: All you need is a good cry. If Lowenstein can get Tom to cry, his boo-boo will go away. She does. It does. The game Nolte wrinkles up his nose, begins to shudder and quiver like Dorothy's house in "The Wizard of Oz," and conjures up a tornado of snot and salt. If that's your idea of entertainment, have a blast. How far we have come from Hemingway's observation that a man who cannot die cannot live, to Streisand's that a man who cannot cry cannot love.

Initially moving, toward the end the movie veers between psychobabble and ickiness. There's a scene where a Eurotrashy Jeroen Krabbe tries to humiliate the bumpkin Wingo at a dinner party that's so arch it's excruciating to sit through; the "football training" sequences have a TV sitcom feel to them (somehow I don't think Streisand knows much about football).

The performances save the film. Nolte's sinewy, graceful hurting ballplayer is a compelling character, as is Blythe Danner as his wife, who's turned from his isolating pain to another man. Streisand is Streisand, wise, brave, gifted, giving and, like Portnoy's mother, maybe a little too good for her own good. But couldn't she have just hummed a few bars of "People"?

'Prince of Tides'

Starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte.

Directed by Barbra Streisand.

Released by Columbia.

Rated R.

***

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