Thursday, June 9, 2011

Play It As It Lays (1972)


          A pretentious mood piece about a movie star experiencing and recovering from a mental breakdown, this adaptation of Joan Didion’s acclaimed novel is like a high-art version of a Jacqueline Susann novel: The only difference between Susann’s trashy showbiz stories and Didion’s take on sleazy Hollywood is that Didion examines the milieu from a sophisticated psychological perspective.
          Tuesday Weld, one of the fiercest actresses to ever grace the screen, tries valiantly to sculpt a complete character from the discombobulated narrative shards of an unnecessarily arty script by Didion and her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, but Weld is held back by the ponderous direction of art-house mainstay Frank Perry (The Swimmer). Similarly, a poignant performance by costar Anthony Perkins is squandered because the film is so preoccupied with European-style abstract editing and overt symbolism that it forgets to simply tell a story.
          Buried amid the auteur-ish muck is a standard-issue Hollywood tragedy about fragile actress Maria (Weld) suffering through a marriage to overbearing film director Carter (Adam Roarke). Maria’s traumas include an abortion; the mental problems of her young daughter, who is institutionalized; and her intense friendship with bisexual producer BZ (Perkins), a doomed drug addict.
          Didion’s book is highly regarded for capturing a moment when promiscuity, psychoanalysis, recreational drugs, and tremendous wealth allowed a generation of Hollywood professionals to indulge themselves to the brink of insanity, but even with Didion and her spouse penning the script, the film version lacks effective cinematic equivalents for Didion’s literary tropes. Therefore, scenes gasp for air while they’re being suffocated with “significance” that viewers can sense but not really understand; it’s easy to envision the sort of Bergman-esque angst that Perry was trying to capture, but he doesn’t have sufficient control over the material to hit that elusive target.
          Amid this slog of a movie, Weld comes off the best, since she has so many opportunities to reveal Maria’s inner demons, and Perkins runs a close second, personifying world-weary soulfulness. Roarke, a cult-fave actor known for offbeat flicks like Psych-Out (1968), gives a credible performance as a domineering artiste, but the script lets him down even worse than it does Weld and Perkins. Play It As It Lays is admirable for what it tries to accomplish, and deeply disappointing for how badly it fumbles the attempt.

Play It As It Lays: FUNKY

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