Saturday, November 5, 2016

1980 Week: Willie & Phil

          Given his well-known admiration for the work of Ingmar Bergman, filmmaker Woody Allen left himself open for easy criticism when he made the Bergman-esque psychodrama Interiors (1978), which many people initially dismissed as a weak homage to the work of a master. Time has revealed the depth of that film, though Allen’s debt to Bergman is inescapable when watching Interiors. Paul Mazursky’s romantic dramedy Willie & Phil has some interesting parallels to Interiors, though the indifference that greeted Willie & Phil during its initial release has not yet given way to critical rediscovery.
          Recycling the basic plot elements from François Truffaut’s beloved French New Wave film Jules and Jim (1962), Willie & Phil represents Mazursky’s sexual satire at its least credible. The characterizations have signs of life, but all three leading actors give underwhelming performances, and the echoes of Truffaut’s style are as affected as the forced insertion of ’70s spirituality into the storyline. It’s not as if Mazursky’s considerable powers failed him here, because some scenes have that special immediacy that distinguishes Mazursky’s best work. As a total experience, however, Willie & Phil is forgettable.
          Like Jules and Jim, this picture tracks the way two men become close friends, only to see their bond challenged by the arrival of a woman whom both men find irresistible. The men are Phil D’Amico (Ray Sharkey), a streetwise photographer with a suffocating overabundance of self-confidence, and Willie Kaufman (Michael Ontkean), a high-school teacher with a debilitating shortage of personal direction. They meet in 1960s New York at a screening of a Truffaut movie (wink, wink), then bond over their mutual desire to avoid the Vietnam-era draft. Soon they encounter Jeannette Sutherland (Margot Kidder), a freespirited beauty recently relocated from her home state of Kentucky to Greenwich Village. When she has money trouble, Willie says she can move in with him, and she and Willie become lovers. Thereafter, the story becomes an episodic litany of ’60s and ’70s signifiers. The friends drop acid and have a threesome. Willie gets into yoga. Jeannette joins the film industry. Phil transitions from shooting pictures to making commercials, so he relocates to California around the time Jeannette and Willie get married and have a child together. Later, when Willie’s spiritual questing takes him out of the country, Jeannette moves to California and stays with Phil. And so on.
          About the only thing that gives Willie & Phil shape is the dense narration track, performed by Mazursky and peppered with remarks along the lines of “10 months later, Willie was confused again.” The film is never difficult to follow, but it’s often difficult to enjoy, not because the characters are unpleasant—they’re all fragile in a relatable way—but because the characters and their experiences are so typical of the hippie era. Although Mazursky delivers the story with his customary intelligence and skill, he never defines Willie & Phil as a necessary artistic expansion of Jules and Jim, and he never proves that his characters merit this level of attention.

Willie & Phil: FUNKY

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