Avert Your Eyes

Stanley Kubrick's final film squanders an opportunity to address adult sexuality and relationships, with an uninspired performance from Tom Cruise and a wasted one from Nicole Kidman

July 16, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Eyes Wide Shut," the final film of director Stanley Kubrick, presents the late filmmaker's admirers with a tantalizing but ultimately confounding coda to one of the most formidable bodies of work in the cinema.

The psychological portrait of a marriage at a pivotal moment, "Eyes Wide Shut" raises some fascinating questions about commitment, intimacy, sexuality and the power of imagination in relationships. And Kubrick's last gasp, which was bound to be a haunting final statement, will surely leave filmgoers with a lingering sense of the mysteries that abound in every emotional transaction.

But for all that is promised and alluded to in "Eyes Wide Shut," and for the fever-dream atmosphere that hovers around its edges, the movie itself is an oddly bloodless, even boring, experience. Distant and uninvolving, Kubrick's swan song is often more a testament to the shortcomings of his genius than to its prodigious imaginative powers.

The most obvious problem is with Tom Cruise, who delivers the film's central performance with inexplicable stiffness. Cruise plays Dr. William Harford, a man who has everything -- a lucrative medical practice, a gorgeous wife (Nicole Kidman), a lovely daughter and palatial digs on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But when Alice, his wife, shares an erotic daydream with him during an argument, the foundations of Harford's smug security begin to crumble. His inner life spins out of control and soon his "real life" is following suit, with the good doctor visiting prostitutes, after-hours sex clubs and, eventually, a hospital morgue in his search for his own sexual boundaries.

Although Cruise knows how to embody a man at the top of his game, moving through the early part of the movie with the jutting energy of supreme self-confidence, he becomes less convincing as Harford's journey becomes more desperate. The result is that his character, who is, after all, the audience's proxy in this surreal journey, never becomes a man we can identify with.

Kidman is more convincing as Alice, a woman who embarks on a similar search as her husband's, only through her dream life. Bringing the same petulant verve to the role as she did in "To Die For," Kidman is alternately snappish and sleepily numb as a woman who has momentarily checked out of her life. But even Kidman's instinctive intelligence can't inject interest into a tiresome early scene with a mysterious dance partner, nor can it make a meandering, marijuana-fueled argument even remotely compelling.

Kubrick certainly spared no expense in creating Manhattan's posher precincts on a London soundstage, but whereas the apartments look appropriately lavish, the exterior scenes -- most of which take place in Greenwich Village -- look strangely foreign.

And credibility isn't helped by a lugubrious pace, hopelessly wooden dialogue and some serious lapses in time and space continuity. (Harford's ambulations through the Village always seem to be on the same block, and his trip to an orgy on Long Island takes just a few suspiciously economical hours.)

But what's more troubling is the opportunity that Kubrick squandered. As the rare film that actually addresses sexuality and relationships as they pertain to adults, this could have been a welcome respite from teen-driven depictions of jiggles, giggles and gags. But instead of rising to the occasion, Kubrick used the subject matter as a foil for his own preoccupations.

Another well-publicized scene -- an elaborately ritualized orgy at a private sex club -- begins to feel like nothing more than the bullying, arrogant fantasy of a creative tyrant, who deploys armies of masked nude women and puts them through their baroque paces because, well, he can.

For all the controversy surrounding the sex in "Eyes Wide Shut," even the most overheated sequences never have more energy than a National Geographic special. Kubrick seems more interested in ogling here, constantly reducing his anonymous actresses to their anatomical elements (he even manages to photograph a corpse with an erotically objectifying gaze).

Some moments that harken to Kubrick's finest hours are the mordantly funny images of Christmas trees, the sleazily convincing portrayal of an upper-class vulgarian by director Sydney Pollack and the amusing encounter between Cruise and a scene-stealing Alan Cumming. But these small rewards are virtually drowned out by a leaden production and a correspondingly portentous musical score.

Much hay has been made of Kubrick's obsessive secrecy surrounding the filming of "Eyes Wide Shut" and the fact that it took more than a year to shoot. The result doesn't begin to live up to such pomp; indeed, it is so deliberately paced and so strangely devoid of emotional stakes that maybe it proves that too much control isn't such a good thing.

With "Eyes Wide Shut," Kubrick's hermetically controlled methods finally get the best of him and reduce this towering artist to a character much like Harford himself -- adrift, disconnected and, at the most elemental level, oddly impotent.

The premise of "Eyes Wide Shut" -- that a marriage consists of two imaginations, which communicate with each other in myriad conscious and unconscious ways -- somehow manages to seep through the self-importance. But the movie's last word -- an ugly, hostile profanity -- leaves filmgoers with the impression that a monumental career has ended with a dispiriting and inelegant whimper.

`Eyes Wide Shut'

Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Released by Warner Brothers

Rated R (strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material)

Running time: 159 minutes

Sun score: *1/2

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