"Bad Timing" is another one in the eye for the psychiatric profession, which doesn't command much respect at the movies these days.
As Dr. Alex Linden, an American "research psychoanalyst" working in Vienna, the slight but awesomely unapplealing Art Garfunkel adds a wretched new case history of twisted behavior to a file already bulging with misbehaving shrinks: Michael Caine in "Dressed to Kill," Klaus Kinski in "Schizoid," Quinn Redeker and Michael Lerner in "Coast to Coast." Only Judd Hirsch in "Ordinary People" upholds psychiatric respectability, and he sounds like a Jewish mother with an advanced degree in psychobabble.
Dr. Linden is the mangiest specimen yet. Director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Yale Udoff exploit the character as a whipping boy for the heartlessness and moral cowardice of uptight intellectuals. Their indictment is handed down within the framework of a trickily jumbled, retrospective mystery story that traces Linden's messy love affair with a young hussy, Milena Flaherty, impersonated with amusing carnal presumption by Theresa Russell, whose effrontery is not unworthy of its prototype, Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola.
The story begins with Milena being rushed to emergency ward after taking an overdose of drugs. Linden, who discovered her at her apartment and phoned for the ambulance, invites suspicion by acting evasive and arrogant with the investigating officers, implausibly commanded by Harvey Keitel in the role of a Viennese detective.
Linden insists on being vague about a time discrepancy.Estranged from Milena, he had gone to her place in response to a woozy, suicidal telephone call. Since she arrived at the hospital near the brink of death, the police are determined to pinpoint the time of her call. As Linden is interrogated, Roeg inserts fragmentary flashbacks depicting the erratic course of their affair. Ultimately, the suspicious time lapse is also clarified.
Full disclosure reveals a guilty secret so unsavory that the title "Bad Timing" is turned into a sick joke: Linden has not only dawdled while Milena slipped into a coma but taken sexual advantage of her inert flesh. Roeg makes an excruciating habit of intercutting recollections of fornication with scenes of Milena undergoing a tracheotomy -- the most demented brainstorm since Bob Fosse reveled in open-heart surgery in "All That Jazz."
The film is subtitled "A Sensual Obsession," and the initial flashbacks suggest a story of erotic degradation patterned after "The Blue Angel." Milena is introduced as an ostentatiously slutty predator who propositions Linden at a cocktail party. Blocking his path with a long, scrumptious gam, Milena won't let Linden get out the door until he promises to come up and see her sometime. She's such a flamboyant advertisement for erotic recreation that she might as well have her phone number written on her forehead, preferably in the same shade of four-alarm crimson that adorns her puffy, smirking lips.
The abiding mystery of the movie is why saucy Milena finds wimpy Linden an object of fascination in the first place. Presumably, she's anticipating intellectual excitement and free analysis. Unfortunately, Art Garfunkel remains such a drab, passive camera subject that there's no compelling reason to accept him as either Thinking Man or viable sex object.
Since the brief but fairly blunt sex scenes earned the movie an X rating anyway, it seems even more self-defeating to choose a leading man incapable of projecting a forceful sexuality.
Garfunkel is hard-pressed to cope with the nervous flutters that supposedly reveal Linden's subterranean turbulence. He lights cigarettes incessantly and twirls the ringlets of his slightly receding, oddly elevated profusion of hair. Aggravating the fingerplay motif, Keitel shows us how hard his sleuth is thinking by repeatedly lifting an index finger to his forehead. Ah, so! In one classic take the thinking process proves so inspirational that he lifts both index fingers and plays dueling digits.
As the pieces of the jigsaw-puzzle continuity accumulate, Roeg can be detected switching signals. Milena's promiscuous antics were evidently misleading: A potentially loyal heart beats beneath that fickle exterior; Linden just isn't generous or secure enough to cultivate it.
Typically, the movie is notable for Roeg's top-heavy stylishness. He cues the somber strains of Pachelbel's Canon and invokes the glittery, sinuous paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele before one has barely settled down. This cultural tone is rather too exquisite for the trashy business being conducted.
Roeg's experiments with a splintered time sequence can produce intriguing effects. He's on the threshold of something stunning when intercutting Keitel's examination of Russell's apartment with flashbacks of Garfunkel and Russel going at it hot and heavy on the same site. One gets the eerie feeling that the detective has become a witness to this sexual encounter.
The technique was applied more effectively in Roeg's earlier Gothic "Don't Look Now," in which the protagonist had premonitory powers. It could also enhance a story like "The Shining." The overal effect of the juxtapositions in "Bad Timing" is to make a contrived scenario more diffuse and pretentious. This morbid erotic mismatch provides Roeg with a pretext he can't finesse.