Worth A Look: 21.69%
Just Average: 22.89%
Pretty Crappy: 36.14%
6 reviews, 47 user ratings
by Jack Sommersby
Rather than trusting the characters to progress the story, the filmmakers have employed a barrage of asinine plot contrivances to do so. Alas, a superb first-half is undermined by a banal second-half. But Diane Lane and Richard Gere are give remarkable performances.Despite a phenomenal performance by Diane Lane, a remarkable one by Richard Gere, and director Adrian Lyne's evocative camerawork, the new psychological drama Unfaithful is appallingly stupid. There's a great, great film just begging to get out here, but the emotional honesty of the material is consistently undermined by a barrage of implausibilities and contrivances which further the plot but dissipate the character base. Throughout, you get the impression you're watching something suffering from a bipolar disorder: one moment you're enthralled by the goings-on, and then, from out of nowhere, something so inane is thrown into the mix you're taken so far out of the film you might as well be in the theatre parking lot. There's a clear-cut reason for this, no doubt: Instead of trusting the audience and treating us like adults, the filmmakers apparently saw fit to progress the story through the plot instead of the drama. So what we have here is a film that's been billed as a psychological drama yet ends up playing out as a watered-down version of one with delusions of grandeur.
"Cheats the Audience Out of an Intelligent Time"
In 1987, director Lyne's Fatal Attraction caused a nationwide stir with its examination of the ramifications of a cheating husband's infidelity. In what he thought was going to be a no-strings-attached, one-night tryst of unbridled lust, hubby Michael Douglas got more than he bargained for with the mentally unstable Glenn Close, who refused to be banged and cast aside like yesterday's news. The first two-thirds of Attraction were complex, probing, and nerve-jangling, but its discreet ending of Close committing suicide and framing Douglas for her death was jettisoned after test audiences felt this "villain" didn't suffer harsh enough a punishment, so the ending was re-shot and played out like something from a standard slasher flick. Five years later, Lyne stirred more controversy with another box office smash, the odious Indecent Proposal, where billionaire Robert Redford offered Demi Moore a million dollars to sleep with him for one night, which, predictably, shattered her marriage to Woody Harrelson. In his most mature and incisive film, however, Lyne pulled off a stunning success with his beautiful 1997 adaptation of the classic novel Lolita. There, Jeremy Irons's pedophile antics ended in deadly dismay for wife Melanie Griffith early on yet were followed through on with staggering dramatic depth because of Lyne's refusal to cater to dumbed-down American audiences.
In Unfaithful, Lyne continues his string of marital-discord morality tales with Diane Lane's Constance "Connie" Sumner engaging in a torrid affair with French bookseller Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez) even though she's living a privileged life with her wealthy and caring husband, Edward (Richard Gere) and pre-teen son, Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan). The way the film tells it, Connie's eleven-year marriage is sound but has settled into a comfortable familiarity, which suits the breadwinning Edward but leaves a bit to be desired for the stay-at-home-mom Connie, who's been left with too much time on her hands in between taking and picking up her son from school. With little in the way of hobbies and nothing to fill up her days, her imagination has been left to wander; though Edward's content with what they have, Connie feels deprived of spontaneous happenings, secretly scared her life's just passing her right on by. But she's much too meek to do anything about by even remotely suggesting to her husband that something is indeed lacking, that their marriage has hit a stand-still instead of progressing forward and deepening. So when the opportunity for an affair materializes for her in the form of the handsome Paul (who's French, by the way), it's perfectly feasible that she indulges in it just to satisfy a single basic urge; it's disturbing and painful to witness but also rings completely true. Many critics have complained that Connie's willing descent into infidelity is dubious in lieu of her comfortable marriage with the amiable Edward, yet not too many cried afoul when Michael Douglas strayed in Attraction with a dreamboat of a wife in the form of the luminous Anne Archer waiting at home.
If the sex scenes in Lyne's fascinating but deeply flawed 9 1/2 Weeks came off as cold and mechanical, the ones on display here are somewhat seamier simply because they're bereft of the kind of arty, commercial-like artifice that rendered Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger's kinky couplings as erotic as the sight of a week-old meatloaf, which, I think, is also due to our identifying with Connie's initial uncertainty and wariness. Even when she's ravenously locking lips with Paul, with each new stage -- the removal of underwear, the feeling of erogenous zones, and eventual penetration -- Connie is constantly checking herself, never committing to go further than she really wants at the given moment. When she confesses to Paul right before he enters her that she doesn't know how to do this -- this being having sex with someone other than her husband -- Paul instructs her to slap him, which she reluctantly does, and then it gets rougher until the two are like two snarling, hungry animals acting out a primal instinct with zero inhibition. And Lyne has ingeniously juxtaposed the shots of this scene with Connie riding home on a train thereafter, where she's feeling both undeniable satisfaction and downright disgust over her actions.
The rest of the sex scenes aren't on this believable level. Connie and Paul screw in a men's room stall in a restaurant where two of Connie's friends await her return; in an empty theatre; and in the hallway of Paul's apartment building, without anyone ever walking in on them, as if life stopped and started with their libidos. I know we're supposed to be shocked at just how brazen and carefree a soccer mom Con has become, but these still come off as the kind of sexual encounters you'll find only in the world of filmdom. With any other actress, all of this might come as trite, but in a role of daunting demands, Lane serves up an electrifying portrait of a woman who knows she's surely guaranteeing the destruction of her family for the sole sake of satisfying her illicit desires yet proceeds to do so anyway. Lane isn't afraid to open herself up to the camera, and it's this emotional accessibility that allows Lyne to shoot that post-coital train scene with a single camera shot; the complex emotional transitions she effortlessly conveys to us are simply staggering to behold. Never has there been a more expressive, truthful actress than Diane Lane (who also gave a game performance three years ago as an unfaithful spouse in Walk on the Moon), and her performance here is the one to beat by a leading actress in the 2002 year.
The first half of Unfaithful is more or less Connie's story; the second half deals with Edward's acceptance and handling of the affair once it's been confirmed by a private detective. Edward isn't stupid. From the very first evening Connie returns home after the affair starts, Edward knows from the get-go something's off; because trusting your spouse of eleven years to him is pretty much a given, he's reluctant to accept what his gut instinct is telling him. It's almost as if he's thinking it'll just go away, so he won't have to confront the love of his life, knowing perfectly well that their marriage has been permanently tainted. None of this is blatantly presented, though. It's subtly conveyed to us through Gere's masterful, underplayed performance. If anything, the role of Edward is trickier than that of Connie because Gere has to present a man who's a bit of a square, embraces essential family values, is rich but treats his employees cordially (when he fires a disloyal exec, the man says, "But I have a family," to which Edward replies, "You had a family here") but isn't a clueless sap, either. Wearing glasses and an assortment of geeky sweaters and jackets, Gere's never looked this down-to-earth before; and he does something which is very difficult for an actor to do -- receding into the background but still remaining vivid enough to capture our attention when needed. With this and his superb work earlier this year as the grieving husband in the brilliant supernatural thriller The Mothman Prophecies, Gere's found himself entering Jeff Bridges territory: where a performance is given for the sake of the character and the overall good of the film, and not as a glorified ego trip to crank out extroverted, attention-getting dramatics that puncture, rather than punctuate, the story.
It's in the complete authenticity of Gere's characterization that we're willing to accept a middle-of-the-game plot twist without the slightest inclination of doubt. In a superbly directed scene, Edward confronts Paul in his apartment while aimlessly walking about, taking in every little detail of the place where his wife has chosen to violate a sacred wedding vow. Paul is a bit unnerved more by what Edward isn't doing -- he doesn't shout, he isn't visibly fuming, and, heck, he doesn't even engage in name-calling. Edward's demeanor is like that of a shell-shocked survivor aghast and terrified at having to confront a situation he's only seen depicted in films, read about in novels, and possibly heard about from family and friends.
If Michael Douglas's confrontation with Viggo Mortensen in the swank A Perfect Murder was all about the husband enjoying having the upper hand on his wife's lover with a criminal past, this similar scene in Unfaithful is completely different in emotional tone in that Edward feels he's the patsy, the fool, the man apparently not good enough for his wife and, worse, inferior to this narcissistic, rootless younger man with one of those three-day beards which went out of style long ago. Lyne's staging is never obtrusive nor does it ever push for effects; it simply does what the camera's intended to do in scenes such as this -- it observes, and leaves the actors to communicate to us. And it's because of this that an ensuing act of violence is made all the more effective and downright dumbfounding because, unlike in most films, the violence actually means something. It's over in the blink of an eye yet its disquieting implications are what startle us; our identifying with Edward's inner turmoil and angst takes us down to this shocking level of animal primitiveness, and we want, but can't, escape or seek reprieve from it. As critic Roger Ebert once noted in his review of De Palma's Blow Out, most films fail to actively engage us, favoring instead to treat us as passive witnesses. Lyne, however, turns convention on its head here -- he punishes us for thinking we're at a safe aesthetic distance from Edward, superior in our gift of supposed foresight, only to find ourselves brought up short not only by Edward's violent act but our inability to shake it and the ramifications off.
What I've detailed thus far are the good points of Unfaithful. In fact, they're so flat-out great that the flaws about to be cited would likely prove to be less detrimental in a consistently stupid film; as it is, though, they're so palpably absurd you'd think the Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Alvin Sargent and William Boyles, Jr., had purposely set out to sabotage their own ingenuity as some sort of guilt trip over their considerably successful careers. Where to begin? First, Connie and Edward's son has been conceptualized more as comic relief than a believable character. He's been given a variety of cutesy one-liners that certainly went over well with the dead-head, prime-time TV junkies in the audience but came off as sour lemons to those of us who favor coherence over sensationalism. Not helping matters is that the role is played by the gruesome Erik Per Sullivan from a current sitcom I refuse to even cite the name of it out of respect for the this site. He also serves a similar function as Michael Douglas's daughter in Attraction: the night before one spouse has extramarital sex, he or she is interrupted from making love to their spouse due to their child's late-night needs. (There's even a scene right out of Attraction where a scrumptious spaghetti meal is prepared.) And the inanities continue:
* Connie has lunch with Paul in the same restaurant where the employee Edward is soon to fire just happens to be dining in.
* A friend of Connie's addresses the subject of infidelity out of the blue and iterates that all affairs end disastrously.
* Connie just happens to leave a message on Paul's machine declaring the affair over right after Edward has murdered.
* A shot of Edward's reflection in a split mirror to convey the duality of man.
* The elevator that Edward uses to transport the concealed body gets stuck while he's inside of it.
* Not less than an hour afterward, a car rear-ends Edward's in a parking lot with the body in the trunk.
* Two cops walk right into the Sumner's house without knocking for a routine questioning.
* Connie denies to the cops that she ever bought a book from Paul when she's cradling one in her arms.
* A scene where Edward is shown carving a Thanksgiving turkey is intercut with one showing Paul's body (implausibly) being discovered in a dump.
* Connie discovering incriminating photos of her and Paul at the dry cleaners that Edward just happened to leave in his jacket pocket.
One moment you're watching a first-class "film." the next you're witnessing the trumped-up contrivances of a third-rate "movie," or a disgraceful "flick" in my book. And every damn one is so out of sync with the material you can't help by being brought up short by it all, and for thinking that Sargent and Broyles, Jr. had sold their souls to the devil many years to attain their success, and 'ol Cloven Hooves had finally come along to collect. At least Attraction didn't lose its bearings until the last fifteen minutes or so, and Diane Lane's previous film, last year's stylish but silly thriller The Glass House, was pitched at such an overexaggerated visual level that the ensuing inanities didn't clash as harshly as they do here with the rock-solid dramatics.
Had the screenwriters truly lost their minds in perpetrating this brand of foolish phoniness on American audiences who're at least intellectually adept enough to balance their checkbooks? After his fifty-eight-million-dollar Lolita crashed and burned at the box office (through no fault of his own, mind you), did Adrian Lyne feel the need to play the big studio game by catering to dummies as compensation? What about Richard Gere, who's a consummate actor and an intelligent man who almost certainly spotted these apparent-as-hell flaws? My take on the matter is this: With two big-name screenwriters sharing the credit who usually work alone, re-writes were almost certainly done on the original screenplay, and who knows who added in the cons and who was responsible for the left-in pros and the excised ones. Reportedly, an alternate ending tested badly with test audiences (just like Attraction's did), but the original one on display here, while non-formulaic, is banal (it's as if the camera had run out of film).
A true and telling sign of Unfaithful's unfaithfulness is revealing Paul as a cad right before his untimely demise. Connie spots him with a luscious hottie, follows him to a bookstore, then angrily confronts him, where Paul (and the audience) is allowed to take the easy way out by calling Connie on her hypocrisy. While this happenstance may seem telling to fools, this turn of events has been earmarked simply to give Edward a little bit of audience goodwill so we don't feel quite so shocked when he dispatches of Paul. It's a cheap, hokey gimmick that's hoarier than any horror film cliche because it undermines a fair amount of the blunt emotional rawness preceding it -- a dummy switch intended to sate the uneasiness audiences just might feel in wake of Edward's violent act. As a result, the film is continuously pulling itself apart, twisting in a viable direction while ultimately succumbing to a banal one.
Market researchers insist that everyday filmgoers are telling them what they want in the way of cinema fiction, and, in all fairness, in light of the healthy box-office takes of formulaic swill polluting American cineplexes, I can't rightfully aver that they're wrong. But I find it deplorable that in a film billed as adult-oriented fare that people of even nominal intelligence would prefer being talked down to than challenged by an entertainment medium one is always free to embrace, reject, or just walk out on. Certain moments from Unfaithful will likely stay with me for a long time, like Connie's ride home on that train after the first tryst, or her look of unease upon seeing her husband, who she knows has killed, lovingly holding their child as the two play notes on the family piano. The film's unforgivable flaws, alas, leave behind a much more disquieting impression.Though Diane Lane's performance is Oscar-worthy, the film she's in isn't even remotely worthy of her.
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originally posted: 12/18/02 10:19:14