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Scratching the Surface

There's something curiously inanimate about Alan Rudolph's Afterglow, but it's certainly not the luminous and thoroughly engaging Julie Christie. Here's a film that means to meditate on the pitfalls of marriage in the Nineties using slyness and dark wit, but it comes off as bloodless as a blueprint. Only the timeless Christie invests it with emotion, and she's not quite enough. Rudolph's detached cool-cat stance, the same one he showed us in Choose Me, The Moderns and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, paralyzes the characters' feelings, and ours.

That's unfortunate, because the domestic battle plan looks sound enough. Couple Number One consists of Christie's Phyllis Hart, a former B-movie actress who still glows with mature glamour but has taken to lying on the couch watching her old pictures on TV, and her feckless husband of 24 years, Lucky Mann (Nick Nolte), a rumpled handyman who scoots around Montreal in a bright red van, administering to the broken plumbing and assorted desires of his female customers.

As for Couple Number Two, does anyone have a bottle of slow-acting poison handy? Maryanne Byron (Twin Peaks' Lara Flynn Boyle) is a slightly batty airhead obsessed with her ovulation cycles; young hubby Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller) is another workaholic yuppie too busy with his stock quotes and the cut of his suit to yield a dram of emotion to his wife or anyone else. Against all odds, Jeffrey thinks himself charming.

Phyllis and Lucky have an Edward Albee-esque marital secret at the heart of their deep unhappiness. Maryanne and Jeffrey, married about half an hour, are simply too self-absorbed to connect. How long can it be from the moment Lucky pops in with some design ideas for Maryanne's irrelevant new child's room until the Manns and the Byrons swap spouses without even knowing it?

The comedy here is supposed to lie in the wild mismatches of the switcheroo--veteran philanderer fooling with neurotic child, floundering man-child intimidated by knowing older woman. The serious subtext is supposed to be the way these carnal (sometimes not so carnal) misadventures awaken everybody, at last, to their own submerged best instincts.

But this strenuously postmodern variation on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice lacks the spark of real life. Instead of attaining character, Nolte, Boyle and Miller all seem to be hauling around portfolios containing the newest ideas about contemporary malaise: Cut these people open and they might bleed concepts. That leaves Christie in the unenviable role of having to carry the day. Only Phyllis feels shaded and human, but she's in with a trio of caricatures.

Writer/director Rudolph, once the acolyte of Robert Altman (who produced this project), has always seemed more comfortable creating atmospheres than internal conflicts. Witness Maryanne and Jeffrey's grimly fashionable condominium, all blank-walled blond wood and frosted-glass vases that must have cost a pretty penny. Sad to say, an apartment is the most vivid character in Afterglow. Meanwhile, Rudolph's arch, spiky dialogue bounces off the surface of the film like stones on a frozen lake. "My soul needs an overhaul," the distraught Phyllis declares. Maybe so, but this is not the movie that can give it one. "I don't know what I like, but I know what art is," gibes our glib fix-it guy, pretending to appreciate Maryanne's attempts at painting. It sounds like pointed Hollywood party talk--Perrier-fueled witticism by way of Rudolph's old pal Dorothy Parker. Without knowing it, you suspect, he's again put chills on his people he probably wishes weren't there at all.

In these denatured characters and their rather theoretical sexual gamesmanship, we're expected to find, I suppose, a thoroughly grown-up view of what ails relationships built on emotional misconception. But neither the hard-won wit nor the cold gleam of Rudolph's middle-aged hipness does much to get inside an audience, where the heartbeat is. Even Christie's final emotional catharsis, in which the walled-up sophisticate is at last overwhelmed by the feeling woman she's repressed for so long, has an air of falsity. After nearly two hours of posing and posturing, Afterglow doesn't quite deserve her effort to break the ice.

--Gallo

Afterglow.
Written and directed by Alan Rudolph. With Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Lara Flynn Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller.

 
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