NOTE: This review is not an interpretation of the film's themes or an attempt to "roll back the meaning", but rather a face value take on a film that despite its many faults, assumes a place in film history for obvious reasons.
1999 was a fine year for the cinema. Several interesting, even groundbreaking bits of mainstream (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE MATRIX, FIGHT CLUB...) graced theater screens. There was also a truckload of white hot anticipation for 2 particular pictures: STAR WARS EPISODE ONE and the latest film directed by Stanley Kubrick, EYES WIDE SHUT. I had learned years before how films with impossible expectations can lead to a hollow filmgoing experience. Crushing disappointment. I often refer to Tim Burton's BATMAN from 1989. I attended a midnight advance screening and by 2 A.M. I was merely underwhelmed and longing for my pillow.
EPISODE ONE came with 16 years of anticipation preceding it. I also attended a late night sneak peek and again was unimpressed. I just never learned, did I? All of the elements seemed to be in place, though. George Lucas was again in the director's chair! It missed, big time. Later that summer, I was in line in Los Angeles to see EYES WIDE SHUT, Mr. Kubrick's first film in 12 years. Sadly, it would also be his final film. To say I was excited about seeing it is pure understatement. My excitement evaporated quickly.
I think I knew something was wrong during the opening Christmas party scene. It did not seem as if I was watching a film directed by Stanley Kubrick. I could not quite say why. Was it what felt like hesitency? A filmmaker unsure of himself? Was the rhythm of the scene by design? Was I misreading, perhaps just so excited to be seeing a film on opening night in L.A. (Universal Ampitheater, no less)? If anything, that should've allowed me to be more forgiving of the film than I was (and am). I remember marveling at how quiet, heck, how downright reverent the audience was that evening. There wasn't a crinkling candy wrapper, popcorn crunch, or cell phone to be heard. It was so quiet I was afraid to even sneeze.
Several reels went by and again I wondered if filmgoers had been hoodwinked. An awkward chase scene on the streets of New York City (actually a fairly meticulous recreation on a London soundstage) felt far too amateurish to be of Kubrickian hands. Awkwardly blocked, oddly paced. This was a film that had specific instructions by Kubrick for the projectionist to turn around and avoid looking at the screen during the first preview showings? Earlier Kubricks may have earned such preemptive hubris; not this one.
And the lead, Tom Cruise, was playing a psychiatrist named Bill Harford, but was acting like his usual familiar persona, with all of the standard brow furrowing and hand gesticulation I'd seen in his other films. What was the difference between his performance here and in THE FIRM? It didn't make sense.
As a segue, THE FIRM's director Sydney Pollack (who occasionally acted) turns up in EYES WIDE SHUT as Victor Ziegler, a pivotal character. His performance also reeked of his usual shtick. Now, I'm well aware Kubrick sometimes looked upon actors as mere tools or props for his pallettes. Possibly with no more regard for them than for a roll of gaffer's tape but possibly less than for those special lenses created by NASA for BARRY LYNDON. Would anyone cite Keir Dullea, Ryan O'Neal, or Shelley Duvall for their stellar performances? Some actors in Kubrick's films did do amazing, thespian defining work (Peter Sellers, Malcolm McDowell, Vincent D'Onofrio), but excellent as they were, they were just raw materials for the hands of a master. In EYES WIDE SHUT, bland performances are merely another homogenous element of a bland film.
Nicole Kidman (then real-life Mrs. Cruise) plays his onscreen wife, Alice. Under the influence of marijuana, she confides to her husband that she has entertained adulterous thoughts and had dreams much the same. This is too much for Dr. Harford and so he goes into the Manhattan night to perhaps heal himself. He meets an assortment of lost girls who proposition and/or warn him of certain danger. Some turn up dead. Harford also meets up with his med school drop-out/pianist friend, Nick (Todd Field), who tips him off as to a curious party/orgy at a huge mansion where everyone is in costume. This scene is the centerpiece of EYES WIDE SHUT, and perhaps the most controversial. U.S. censors insisted that silhouetted figures be placed stratecgically in front of som of the steamier goings-on at this party.
Which, by the way, is, to this viewer, just one reason this sequence is spectacularly silly. It is so self-consciously ominous that I found myself wanting to giggle amongst the reverent filmgoers around me. The nadir comes with a quick B-movie zoom on a masked figure on one of the upper levels of the mansion. I could not contain my laughter, decorum be damned. This is a Kubrick movie? Fidelio? Bah.
Even worse is a terminally long scene late in the film, a pool game between Ziegler and Harford where everything is explained. An ordeal it is to sit and listen to these characters speak as if they take the plot's intracies so seriously. The dialogue is straight out of mid 20th century potboiler. Even Kubrick's KILLER'S KISS isn't as melodramatic. I could not take this film's urgency with any seriousness or involvement. The final scene's abruptness is also entirely unearned and ineffectual. If the director was trying to continue his dehumanization theme with EYES WIDE SHUT, it was only achieved incidentally. Some criticized Jack Nicholson's portrayal in THE SHINING for not being dynamic (i.e., the "before" Jack Torrence was little different than the "after"). The characters in EYES WIDE SHUT are truly just shadows to begin with, devoid of any humanity from which to fall.
But...who was Private Joker in FULL METAL JACKET? What of David Bowman and Frank Poole in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY? We don't always get privileged views inside the characters of a Kubrick film. We do not always get complex examinations of specimens like Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or Lolita in LOLITA. In EYES WIDE SHUT, however, not only do we not get a sober read on the characters (who are vapid at best), but the canvas on which they play out is that of a maestro working far below his capabilities. Yearlong principal photography or not, the legendary perfectionism did not pay off in its usual dividends.
We often speak of the painstaking mise-en-scene of a Kubrick picture. Astonishly stylish yet coldly clinical. What of, for example, the harsh uses of lighting? The famous eyes up from a downturned face shot? One could marvel merely at the technique, yet, each of his films reveal layers of thoughtful essays that lay bare man's avarice, of which one might discern a contribution to the protagonist's downfalls (CLOCKWORK, BARRY LYNDON). "Meaning" that takes a few viewings to truly flower, perhaps. EYES WIDE SHUT has yet to reveal itself in such a way to me. It just seems muddled and half-baked, a mere collection of ideas rather than a film. Most Kubrick films had mixed reviews upon their original releases, later to be deservedly lionized. The jury is most certainly still out on EYES WIDE SHUT. I've watched it a few times since 1999. Ask me in another ten years.
Part XII, The Great Overrated