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Kubrick's Sleepy 'Eyes Wide Shut'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 1999

  Movie Critic

'Eyes Wide Shut'
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in "Eyes Wide Shut." (Warner Bros.)

Stanley Kubrick
Tom Cruise;
Nicole Kidman;
Sydney Pollack;
Marie Richardson;
Alan Cumming;
Leelee Sobieski
Running Time:
2 hours, 39 minutes
Nudity and extreme sexuality, although some digitalized silhouettes inserted at key points will have you shouting "Down in front!"
"Eyes Wide Shut" turns out to be the dirtiest movie of 1958.

Boasting far more eroticism in its ad campaign than it ever shows on screen, Stanley Kubrick's 13th and last film is actually sad, rather than bad. It feels creaky, ancient, hopelessly out of touch, infatuated with the hot taboos of his youth and unable to connect with that twisty thing contemporary sexuality has become. It's empty of ideas, which is fine, but it's also empty of heat.

The film is derived from a few odd pages in the center of a 1926 novella ("Dream Story") by the Viennese writer-seducer Arthur Schnitzler, and was evidently an obsession of Kubrick's for many years. (Kubrick had talked about making it into a movie as early as 1971.) One can see why the piece attracted: It followed as a Jewish doctor and his wife, their marriage gone stale, were revivified by a dangerous turn of events in which a nasty sexual adventure of his turned out to be a dream of hers. That represented a magic, sexual unity, and back they went to it, like a coupla bunnies in a hutch. One presumes it had a kind of erotic tide to it, a flow of desire, a replication of the sensation of that semiconscious near-dream state where the darkest reptiles of your darkest, freest sexuality are permitted to wander, if only for a few seconds.

But the movie that Kubrick has erected on this tiny foundation turns out to be gigantic, misguided, cold and idiotic, as well as obvious. Dreary today has been substituted for the art nouveau then, dirty New York (actually constructed on a back lot) for spidery Vienna, and the flavorlessly WASP Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman for the Jewish doctor und his vife.

It is instructive to briefly consider the difference between the film's marketing and the film itself. For one thing, the marketing features Kidman, where the film itself hardly does (though by far the more accomplished performer, she's a minor character in her husband's crackpot odyssey). Yet the imagery of her that has showed up on magazine covers hither, thither and yon is sublimely potent: It has a sense of play, of tease, of possibility, of sweaty rhythm. One sees in the lines of her muscly stomach not just beauty, but more intriguingly the tension of sexual repression, yearning to be released as if her pelvis gotta move, gotta dance. Her eyes – especially on the cover of Rolling Stone – are wise, knowing, confident, intriguing. She's a Kabuki Circe with Frank Sinatra's crushed fedora strategically placed for maximum suggestibility. She's Helen of Troy, the young Guinevere, Brandi Chastain, all feminine eros morphed into a kind of meta-goddess.

Yet Kubrick, as it turns out, strips her of her goddesshood in the early going, in a few nude scenes that are anti-erotic: the kind of casual, banal nudity that man and wife become accustomed to. He's much more interested in letting Tom Cruise act. Now whoever told him Tom Cruise could act? Or did he not care? This, after all, is the gentleman who has starred the likes of Gary Lockwood, Keir Dullea, Ryan O'Neal and Matthew Modine in his films. Clearly, he prefers obedience to the vision to contribution to the vision.

There's not much story, which is another way of saying there's too much. Kubrick is annoyingly offhand while at the same time grindingly pedantic; plot points are made over and over again, things are explained till the dawn threatens to break in the east, and the movie stumbles along at a glacial pace. For suspense, Kubrick's pianist whacks out chords like a very angry fellow: Please, shoot the piano player.

As the movie crawls along, we begin with Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice (the Cruises), who live on New York's Central Park West in an apartment that must have cost $7 million. Invited to a party of one of his powerful patients, each has a flirtatious encounter. She is swept up and nearly seduced by a Hungarian Lothario (a completely synthetic part played synthetically by an ersatz Valentino named Sky Dumont who seems to have stepped out of the 1920s!) and he, meanwhile, has a run-in with two professional beauties who clearly want to make him the cream in a supermodel Twinkie. But then he's called away by his patient, the mysterious Ziegler (Sydney Pollack, in a typical power role) whose sex partner has just gone into some kind of heart arrest because of a drug dose. Cruise's Dr. Bill – possibly the least doctorly doctor since Kildare – revives her with a few touches of the magic fingers.

The next night, Doctor and Missus are relaxing with a Bud and a joint when a fight breaks out between them, the subject being fidelity of mind and body. She has seen him with the models, he has seen her with the Hungarian jerk. He makes it clear he trusts her, which inflames her; she tells him a possibly fictitious story about a fascination she had with a naval officer on their last vacation.

This both upsets and intrigues him. The next night, after he's called out to attend to a patient's death (we don't know who, and it's never explained), the dead man's daughter throws herself at him. Further agitated, jealous and presumably seeking a kind of payback for her un-fidelity, he wanders off, dallies with (but doesn't commit to) a prostitute. Then, from an old school chum (don't ask), he learns of a mysterious party for rich people at a mansion where an orgy is the main order of business.

Picking up a costume and a mask in a dreary sub-episode, he crashes the secret orgy. But whose idea of an orgy is this, the Catholic Church's? Far from being a Dionysian blast, a free-for-all where any port will do in a stormy sea of thighs, where the self is lost in the screaming of ecstasies, where flesh presides over sense, this orgy has been imagined as some kind of religious festival, a mass presided over by an anti-bishop. Frankly, it's the dullest orgy ever seen, desperate for energy, a pagan beat, the pounding of tom-toms. Even some bebop would help. Instead we get – is this a joke, or what? – organ music. It's a high liturgy set to a creepily monotonous beat.

People in artistic masks kneel and perform while others watch them as if they are examining microbes. (Carefully implanted digital silhouettes protect us from the actual moments of penetration.) The whole thing feels as if it's swiped from the '50s porno classic "Story of O." It's full of campy '50s elements played deadpan serious: a decadent "rich people orgy" behind Venetian masks and formal evening wear with sex in rare-book rooms, amid damask hangings and tapestries.

The masks at least keep the actors from laughing, but they also seal away Cruise's only redeeming attribute as an actor, his fabulously handsome if largely inert face. What a ridiculous dramatic idea this is! What else has he got? You take from him the one thing that distinguishes him and you remove all identification with the character. It also obscures the faces of other actors who later figure in the plot; it's an enigma dumped in the middle of a riddle.

In any event, he is captured by his hosts but contrives an escape. What follows thereafter (another 40 minutes' worth or such) is a commonplace paranoid thriller in which the doc tries to get to the bottom of things, while at the same time feeling himself hunted and his family endangered. This leads to a clumsy scene in the billiard room that feels like boilerplate Agatha Christie.

Through all this, the missus is left at home. When the scene finally occurs that could have unified the film – his experience has been her fantasy, suggesting the intensity of their connection and the vitality of their sexual love – Kubrick denies it. She's left with a fever dream of other men, he with his memories of masked debauchery in which he did not partake.

What have they got at the end but each other? The movie has denied them each the possibility of finding freedom in the flesh of others, and, in its odd way, it ends up representing a recommitment to the holiness of monogamy. It's really not about sex but the denial and avoidance of polymorphous sex. It's about nothing less (or more) than not doing it! It might have been called "Dr. Normal Love: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Have Sex With My Wife."

I still bow before no one in my love for Kubrick's earlier brilliance. But in this one, he lost it, if he had had it in the past decade. "Eyes Wide Shut" must be regarded as a failure betrayed from within by Kubrick's own hubris. He thought he could bully Tom Cruise toward greatness, and he failed; he thought he could bully Arthur Schnitzler toward greatness and he failed; he thought he could bully himself one more time, and he failed a third time. The sad truth is that "Eyes Wide Shut" must enter that collection of over-inflated zeppelins full of hot air but otherwise rudderless and hopelessly adrift, like "Howard the Duck," "Ishtar" and "The Flintstones." It's really nothing more than "American Pie" for the too-smart set.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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