YOU WERE expecting a Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman soft-porn movie?
"Eyes Wide Shut" was certainly sold that way in a jillion TV interviews and magazine cover stories. Well, ignore the hype. Sure, they are the central couple. And sure, there is a great deal of sex. But "Eyes Wide Shut" is a Stanley Kubrick film, through and through. Thank goodness.
It's painstakingly paced, but it's also entrancing. It's definitely strange, but you should expect that from a filmmaker who spent decades locked away in self-imposed exile in England and whose eccentricity has been well documented.
The story is about the peeling away of layers between two married people, Bill Harford (Cruise) and his wife Alice (Kidman), who have a 7-year-old daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) and live a comfortable life in Manhattan.
When they go to a seasonal party, hosted by their friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), Bill enjoys the flirtatiousness of two beautiful models while his champagne-intoxicated wife has a few too many dances with Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), a dapper Hungarian Lothario who invites her upstairs for a tryst.
Although neither spouse acts on the impulse, they have taken an unconscious step closer to infidelity -- or the idea of it.
A testy bedroom conversation between them, loosened up by a little marijuana, leads to a disturbing revelation. Alice tells her husband she was bowled over by the sight of a naval officer in Cape Cod the previous summer.
Devastated and suddenly insanely jealous, Bill takes a 24-hour journey into sexual promiscuity, intriguing mystery and harrowing danger.
Little by little, his morality crumbles as he descends into a subworld that includes street hookers and high society sensation seekers. Bill's previously simple, clinical vision of the world is upended forever.
Unfortunately, Kubrick passed away on the eve of this movie's release, just in time for Warner Bros. to digitally sabotage one of his key scenes. Deep into the movie, you will notice Cruise's character walking through an orgiastic scene in which consenting adults are conveniently obscured by the digital placement of other partygoers in front of them.
The effect, as critic Roger Ebert has pointed out, is like an unintentional Austin Powers joke, in which private parts are strategically hidden just as the camera sweeps past.
What an insult to the memory of Kubrick, and what an indictment of the gymnastics studios undergo to avoid an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Academy of America.
Luckily, the movie's more than strong enough to transcend this ignoble concession. To watch "Eyes Wide Shut," which was based on Arthur Schnitzler's pre-Freudian "Traumnovelle" ("Dream Novel") about sexual obsession and deception, is to look at the world from Kubrick's brain. You experience this 159-minute movie at his deliberate pace and from his oddly distanced perspective. The effect is disorienting but mesmerizing, as if you were suddenly transformed into an intellectual crawfish, scuttling from vantage point to vantage point, casting jaundiced eyes at the human race.
The movie, which Kubrick wrote with Frederic Raphael, exudes the ghostliness of Kubrick's "The Shining." There's a constant sense of cautionary foreboding. A few wrongfully decisive steps can push you through the flimsy walls of love, marriage and trust, and into a den of licentiousness, unharnessed immorality, sadness, loneliness, death, pestilence and cruel deception. This is a sexual horror story, and the moral and dramatic creepiness pulsate in every pregnant pause between characters, every flat utterance from their lips, every hypnotic moment of this film.
Whether or not this is a masterpiece or a semi-masterpiece is hard to say. I wasn't particularly impressed by the resolution, for instance. But after the titillation has died down -- and whether or not America embraces this one-of-a-kind experience -- time will eventually smile on this movie, I believe. "Eyes Wide Shut" is testament to Kubrick's mastery -- the same directorial instinct that has given us "Dr. Strangelove," "2001 -- A Space Odyssey," "Clockwork Orange," "Paths of Glory" and "The Killing," to name a few. For more than 2 1/2 hours my eyes and mind were wide open.
EYES WIDE SHUT (R, 159 minutes) -- Contains nudity, sexual scenes, marijuana smoking, alcohol drinking and obscenity. Area theaters.
CAPTION: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman surpass the hype surrounding "Eyes Wide Shut."