"Natural Enemies," now at the Avalon 2, opens with a portentous image of an alarm clock bathed in early morning light and the ominous sound of it tick-tick-ticking away. The camera discovers the brooding, cheerless countenance of Hal Holbrook. His thoughts, in voice-over narration, confirm the audio-visual apprehensions:
"I don't think I slept 10 minutes during the night. At least I didn't know whether I was asleep or awake or lost or dead. Then I heard myself say, 'This is the day you will take the .22 and shoot Miriam, then Tony, then Sheila, then Alex and then yourself.' . . . All men think of killing their families. Some men do it. Some do not."
Far from creating an appalling mood of suspense, "Natural Enemies" has self-destructed on takeoff. Every impulse tells you it is going to prove both unsatisfying and unedifying to humor this suicidal protagonist -- shortly identified as a disgruntled intellectual snob named Paul Steward -- on the fateful day he may or may not take the lives of his wife (played by Louise Fletcher, sustaining the impression that the worst thing that can happen to some performers is an Academy Award) and children before snuffing himself. Every subsequent thought and encounter you're obliged to share with Steward confirms the suspicion that while misery may love company, it seldom makes rewarding company.
We witness Steward feeding his resentments and seeking, presumably in vain, a reason to go on living. Unsatisfied by a morning quickie with his unresponsive wife, Steward stares daggers at the children, deplores their taste and imagines himself shooting them later that night, a flight of fancy that makes a real act of mass murder seem a trifle redundant.
At the office of Scientific Man, the respected journal of opinion he owns and edits, Steward rejects a story idea from an astronaut and finds little solace in heavy conversation with colleagues like historian Jose Ferrer and shrink Viveca Lindfors, who helpfully announces, "It's pretty obvious that the world is coming to an end, and America is on the way down." Not even an afternoon romp with five prostitutes who also go in for meaningful philosophic afterplay can put the roses back in Our Suffering Intellectual's gloomy cheeks.
"Natural Enemies" is exactly the sort of pseudo-profound fiasco that doesn't stand a chance of attracting a popular audience and doesn't really deserve the chance. Its appeal is likely to be limited to people who share Steward's hateful intellectual vanity and flatter themselves that a desperate mental state gives one a certain cachet. But a vindictive death wish is neither attractive nor respectable.
The tone of "Natural Enemies" seems to combine the worst pretentious traits of Woody Allen's "Interiors" and Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz." Indeed, Steward is such a dreadful snob that the sound of his discontent makes "Natural Enemies" a bigger target for healthy, life-affirming ridicule than "Interiors" and "All That Jazz" put together. The man says he means homicidal business. But seriously folks: How can you resist giggling when Holbrook leaks confidences like "She was possessed by the fear she was alive -- maybe that's the demon that haunts us all," or "Europe felt dead to me, and I felt dead," or "As we pulled away from the station, I realized I wouldn't miss New York, and it certainly wouldn't miss me"?
New York can be cruel, but if there's some reason why Paul Steward should be missed, it escaped my notice. His grievances are not compellingly expressed. They're standard sour grapes among would-be domineering intellectuals who regard their fundamental insignificance as an unforgivable injustice. If the story exposed this mentality as the degenerate, egotistic bore it is (and the approach could be either comic or serious), "Natural Enemies" might have been worth contemplating. Treated respectfully,as an exemplary case of modern man at the end of his spiritual tether, Steward's Complaint invites only contempt.
"Natural Enemies" may be a useful object lesson to aspiring filmmakers who imagine that they'll make a big impression by confronting Big Issues. Jeff Kanew, who established a considerable reputation as a producer of trailers and featurettes, has done himself a major disservice by making his feature directing debut on a text as insufferable as "Natural Enemies," derived more or less faithfully from a 1975 novel by Julius Horwitz. Although Kanew has a clean pictorial style, this material tends to stifle pictorial invention. The exposition depends on stream-of-consciousness narration, and you have to be a glutton for know-it-all defeatism and self-pity to splash around in Steward's stream of consciousness.
"You make our life sound like something out of a bad novel," Mrs. Steward tells her bitter spouse during the inconclusive concluding sequence. This criticism goes double for Kanew's adaptation of "Natural Enemies," a movie that's maddeningly content to sound like nothing so much as a bad novel.