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‘The Morning After’ (R)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1986

"The Morning After" reminds you of what a fine actor can do with good dialogue -- specifically, Jane Fonda, who makes you think she could be another Bette Davis, if only another Joseph Mankiewicz were around to write the lines. But screen writer James Hicks is plenty good enough, and together with Jeff Bridges and Raul Julia, Fonda makes "The Morning After" seem like a lot more than it is.

For in its outlines, "The Morning After" is a silly, by-the-numbers murder mystery. Alex Sternbergen (Fonda), an over-the-hill actress fond of the grape, wakes up in a stranger's bed one morning. She's hung over; he's worse. "He had a heart attack?" her estranged husband Jackie (Julia) asks over the phone. "Yeah," she says. "From a knife in the chest."

She can't call the police -- she's a blackout drunk, and in one of her blackouts she stuck a paring knife in a previous husband. So she frantically escapes to the airport, which doesn't work either -- it's Thanksgiving, and every flight is booked solid. But in the parking lot, she meets Turner Kendall (Bridges), an ex-cop with a smile like the edge of a dinner plate. Turner is a Mr. Fixit who "likes to repair stuff. Whatever needs it. Whatever people are through with." Apparently, this includes Alex, for they become involved with each other, lovers trying to figure out if Alex did it, and if she didn't, who did.

"James Hicks" is the pseudonym of James Cresson, a former producer and actor. In his first film, screenwriter Hicks doesn't show more than a workmanlike ability for storytelling, but he has a gift for writing strong scenes, parts actors can run with and fabulous dialogue. Alex, for example, has her own pseudonym -- Viveca Van Loren -- which, given her fractured, blowsy appearance, creates a marvelous parodic counterpoint. And there's something wonderful about any movie where someone can get defensive and say, "Honey, I'm a drag queen, not a transvestite."

The chief beneficiary is Fonda, who takes Hicks' zingers and gives them a bitter edge, hard as anthracite. But what's extraordinary is the number of levels she gives to Alex, the way she goes behind the bitterness to pathos, beyond the pathos to self-pity and back again. When she says, "They were grooming me to be the next Vera Miles," Fonda gives you the pride of a has-been, but also the absurdity of the claim. And you sense that her Alex, given her tendencies toward dramatizing herself, almost welcomes the plight she finds herself in -- as the psychologists say, she enjoys "acting out," and being a murder suspect is the best part she's had in years.

Bridges, loose and natural as always, takes advantage of a terrific part, too. Turner is always ready with generalizations about blacks, Hispanics and Jews ("What are you, a Klan anthropologist?" Fonda asks him). As Bridges plays him, Turner is almost a flower child, and that enhances the movie's suspense -- you figure he's too good to be true.

And why aren't there more parts for Raul Julia? Loud, bold, and full of life, he's a charismatic presence, with a swaggering, contagious joy in the role of a high-priced hairdresser. When Julia delivers a line, it stays delivered, and he's a remarkably generous actor, too -- however good Fonda is, she's even better when she's with Julia.

Much of the credit for what's good about "The Morning After" must go to director Sidney Lumet, but so must the blame for what's bad about it. His tastes seem to get more florid with each picture, particularly, in "The Morning After," in terms of the score (by composer Paul Chihara), which is lugubrious, and omnipresent -- it's almost demeaning to the actors to think that their scenes require the kind of leaden emphasis Chihara gives them.

And "The Morning After" shows Lumet working, once again, with cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, the Prince of Darkness, whose interiors are muzzy and dim, and who, when he's outside, plays recklessly with colored filters.

As a whole, "The Morning After" doesn't survive these technical glitches, or the smallness of its conception. But if a movie is, as Howard Hawks suggested, simply a few strong scenes with something in between, then "The Morning After" is a success. As the medium has become more and more exclusively visual, it reminds you of the power of the spoken word.

"The Morning After" is rated R and contains profanity and violence.

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