Best known for the Oscar-winning adapted screenplays of Julia (1977) and Ordinary People (1980), Alvin Sargent has spent his career writing stories about troubled characters. Some of these stories hit a perfect target of idiosyncratic sensitivity, and some of them, well, don’t. An example of the latter circumstance is Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, the tale of an emotionally disturbed American youth and an uptight middle-aged Englishwoman who fall in love while traveling through Spain. The story is reasonable enough, since we discover why each character has fled home and why each character feels sufficiently adrift to latch onto an unlikely paramour, but the execution is awkward.
As directed by the venerable Alan J. Pakula, who specialized in heavy drama, Love and Pain has an oppressive seriousness that inhibits Sargent’s attempts to blend comic and dramatic elements. Pakula anchors shots in deep shadows that create distractingly ominous portent, and his handling of performances is almost too sensitive: Pakula lets Bottoms and Smith go so deep into their characters’ traumas that viewers are more likely to be frightened for these people than to root for them. It doesn’t help that vignettes in Sargent’s script range from generic to silly.
On the generic end of things are many aimless scenes of the couple walking around historical sites, and on the silly end is the sequence in which the guests encounter a strange duke (Don Jaime de Mora y Aragón), who literally rescues Smith on horseback after she suffers a fall. Sargent also occasionally succumbs to hippie-era psychobabble, like this speech delivered by Bottoms: “We’re free, we’re coming alive, we’re talking to each other—what do you want to go back to crying in the dark for?” Complicating matters further, the picture features dissonant moments of lowbrow physical comedy, like the bit of Smith tripping on her panties while fleeing an interrupted sexual liaison.
Ultimately, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is an extremely odd movie, with a jumble of erratic tonalities and fleetingly touching performances; though the picture has such admirable intentions and genuine feeling that it can’t be dismissed, it’s an aesthetic hodgepodge.
Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing: FUNKY