It may be that what you respond to in "Always," Henry Jaglom's new film, is not the movie itself, but the man behind it -- the utter nakedness of his heart touches you. Jaglom began his career as an actor, and the movie is driven by an actor's impulses, by the high-wire act of confession, in a world where nothing is hidden.
The movie, which chronicles the breakup of the director's own marriage, may not be for everyone. At the outset, a thinly veiled Jaglom figure, played by Jaglom, addresses the camera directly and announces that his wife of five years, a thinly veiled Patrice Townsend figure (played by Townsend), is coming over to sign their divorce papers. Jaglom blunders through a home-cooked dinner, and by the time the lumbering notary public arrives, they can't go through with it. Through a combination of tenacious emotion and food poisoning, they end up spending the night (and the weekend) together.
The next morning, they're joined by old friends, a married couple that are halfway happy. Townsend's sister, summoned to deliver various vitamins and digestives for her tummy ache, arrives with her new beau, a lumpy and reserved ice cream vendor ripe for henpecking. For the rest of the weekend, the six sit around, eat, drink, philander and talk about happiness.
The heroes of "Always" are emotional children, if part of being a child means a fantasy of a life unsullied by trouble. Jaglom's home is decorated with cartoon posters; he and Townsend mewl and coo and converse in a kind of baby talk, gaze into each other's eyes and their own navels, and what neither can get over is how imperfect life turned out to be. "I was so happy, everything was so perfect," he confesses to the camera. Townsend, too, confesses that when she discovered that life had its ragged edges, it became impossible for her to be happy.
You feel like screaming "Grow up already!" and in part, you're right -- part of what's problematic about "Always" is trying to define the line between the childlike and the childish, and Jaglom gives you no help there. Indeed, what makes "Always" flawed as a work of art is exactly what makes it valuable as a cultural document. There's no point of view anchoring "Always," none of the process of digestion that's usually involved in art; but in exchange, the movie has a certain directness and sincerity, a feeling of life as it is.
Jaglom doesn't comment on his reality, he just organizes it roughly and throws it up there. At times, the movie seems like a satire of L.A. (these people hug each other more than sumo wrestlers), at other times a satire of the well-off -- they don't have to worry about jobs or food or shelter, so they worry about how happy they are, whether they're "fulfilled" or "in pain." But you're never quite sure if Jaglom is deriding his characters or sympathizing with them. Townsend, for example, with her yoga and acidophilus tablets and manufactured angst, seems like a silly person indeed, but Jaglom never says so. Even when a character says, "My life is saying, 'Me me me' instead of me saying 'Me,' " the movie lacks the edge of satire.
"Always" could easily be attacked as a touchy-feely throwback to the '60s; Jaglom, who edited "Easy Rider," has composed the movie with some of the archaic stylistic tics of the '60s avant-garde -- zooms into close-ups, that sort of thing. But in the midst of a movie culture obsessed with impersonal marketing, watching a movie as translucently honest as "Always" can be as liberating as reading Kerouac was liberating. What's frustrating about it also draws you in. movieag Always, opening today at the Outer Circle, is rated R and contains profanity and sexual themes.