'Six Degrees of Separation' delights with both dialogue and ideas

January 21, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Words, glorious words. Sentences, glorious sentences. And best of all -- ideas, glorious ideas.

These are the rare pleasures concealed in "Six Degrees of Separation," opening today from the famed John Guare stage success. It's a dense comic-ironic exploration of the terrible gulfs in society and the pathologies subsequently generated. It watches as a gaggle of upscale New Yorkers are exposed to, victimized by and then must come to terms with a young black man who initially seems One of Their Own Kind, but ultimately reveals himself to be One of the Others.

Us/Them: It's everywhere, and Guare catches explicitly the incandescent sputtery terror of this deep division as we seem a society hell-bent on tribalization. Bosnia here we come! His ironically self-aware characters, who can festoon garlands of language on any situation for their own bitter amusement, know this exactly. They are not fools. They aren't sure quite what they are, and they are not quite sure what to do about it, but they know they are not fools and that they must do something.

The filmmakers -- the Australian director Fred Schepisi and Guare himself, adapting his play into a screenplay -- haven't simplified the elaborate shifts in time and voice that were the hallmark of the stage production, but they have moved the events into a natural world of exquisite apartments and deliciously decorated restaurants. Thus, there's some minor dislocation in the beginning in the conflict between the staginess of the dialogue -- full of epigrams, ironic drolleries, pregnant pauses -- and the "reality" of the settings. We know, of course, that "real people" don't talk like this, not even sublimely educated and refined art dealers and their wives.

Still, so plummy-rich and beguiling is the shape of the English spoken in "Six Degrees of Separation" that soon enough it's mesmerized you: You actually feel the theatrical spell of the language in a way that's rare for a movie, given the level of banality that passes for dialogue in films today.

The story is complex and rich with ironies, moments of bliss and strangeness. One night, Flan and Ouisa (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) are mixing business with pleasure in a drink with Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), a wealthy, cultivated South African. Flan is an art dealer -- or, more, a broker -- and he's trying to put together one of those consummately late-20th-century transactions, moving an expensive painting from one syndicate of investors to another. The object is to both find a good home for the work and find a good home for the $2 million or so in price differential, preferably in his own pocket. The deal so defines him: good-hearted, refined and exquisitely educated, yet fundamentally without power, living at the whim of the truly powerful. And the deal has a touch of desperation: He has two children in elite universities, a gorgeous Park Avenue co-op with a view of the park, some small masterpieces, a penchant for fine wine and not one red cent in the bank.

A call comes, announcing from downstairs that a young man who claims to be a friend of his children seeks assistance after a mugging.

Enter Paul, stage right. (The in-the-door and out-the-door conventions of the theater do grow irksome in a movie). Paul is black but somehow not of blackness. Dressed in the appropriate eastern college look (blazer, Brooks shirt, Bass weejuns), he's beautiful, articulate, informed, captivating, an essay in charm. And, he confides, he's . . . Sidney Poitier's illegitimate son, come down to New York from Cambridge to work with his father on a film version of "Cats." He's exactly what they yearn for in their liberal guilt and insulation, almost tailor-made: a dream African American. They never say it, but you can read it in their pleasure and the eagerness with which they give themselves up: If only they were all like this. But they can't know how carefully Paul has been assembled -- by Paul -- to play to their expectations.

Will Smith, as Paul, lights the movie up like a skyrocket. The seduction he unleashes has the feel of a great job by a confidence artist, smooth and expertly mapped out, made all the more powerful by its performers' total identification with his role. They're candy in his hands, even as we begin to note small discordances that promise difficulty.

In fact, even the South African is enchanted, and the deal is consummated. Everybody's happy. Paul is invited to spend the night. It's like a magic moment in the illusion that is America: See, we are all together in love and respect. It's a wonderful life.

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