“Is there anything left but winning and losing in the world?” That question, posed by a fading actor to his decades-younger lover, epitomizes everything that’s interesting and ridiculous about Fools, a romantic melodrama starring the unlikely duo of Jason Robards and Katharine Ross. At first blush, the question sounds like a deep existential inquiry. On closer inspection, it’s pretentious. Both impressions are true, and both fit the movie as a whole. One of myriad late ’60s/early ’70s movies about older men discovering new ways of thinking by engaging in sexual affairs with young women, Fools strives to make a Grand Statement about the follies of human existence, only to tumble into a quagmire of clichés, half-developed notions, and easy contrivances. Yet Fools is strangely watchable, largely because of Robards’ innate charisma and Ross’ mesmerizing beauty. A charitable reading would say the casting alone saves the movie, because Robards incarnates the idea of a romantic poet gone to seed, while Ross represents the promise of youth. That reading, however, overlooks the movie’s dubious specifics.
Set in San Francisco, Fools opens with Matthew South (Robards) hanging out in a park and behaving eccentrically. He somehow catches the attention of Anais Appleton (Ross), resulting in one of the least credible meet-cutes in movie history. The two embark on a long walkabout through San Francisco, with Matthew issuing fashionably anti-Establishment attitudes, as when he screams at passing cars: “This whole world is infested with machines!” Soon the couple find themselves in a quiet forest, where the following dialogue exchange ensues. Anais: “You’re still a child, Matthew.” Matthew: “Am I?” She replies with a meaningful look, and they kiss, sparking one of many airy montages set to twee folk music. The dialogue becomes even more absurd once the story introduces Anais’ husband, uptight lawyer David Appleton (Scott Hylands), who pays private investigators to follow her. At one point, David says to Anais, “You’re a woman.” She replies, “You’re a man—what does that mean?” Oy.
Another layer of affectation stems from Matthew’s work, because he’s a Karloff-style actor in cheesy horror films. Presumably the idea was to express that life is an illusion, man, so we make the world we want—or something like that. At its most disjointed, the movie spins into pointless farce, plus a dream sequence and an oh-so-’70s tragic finale. In many ways, Fools epitomizes the ridiculous extremes of with-it late ’60s/early ’70s filmmaking, so it’s possible to consume the picture as an unintentional comedy. After all, Fools overflows with cutesy events, bogus emotion, stilted dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Approached less cynically, the movie has virtues. It’s a handsome-looking picture that tries to engage in relevant ideas, and the acting is generally quite good. Ross, as usual, is more luminous than skilled, but she commands attention with her sincerity, and Robards, working his familiar A Thousand Clowns groove, was singularly adept at making wild-eyed dreamers seem appealing, as he does here.