Christine and Jamie have some issues. She’s an attractive divorcée open to embarking on a new romantic adventure. He’s her imaginative and precocious 10-year-old son, prone to sarcasm and startling sexual references. When Christine meets Peter, a motor-mouthed eccentric who wants to marry her, she worries so much about whether he’ll have chemistry with Jamie that she prevents the two males in her life from meeting for an extended period. Good call. Once Jamie realizes how important Peter has become to his mother, he decides to take action. How far he goes to prevent Peter from becoming part of the family defines the weird storyline of Rivals. Written and directed by Indian-born filmmaker Krishna Shah, Rivals is a deeply strange movie that bounces between domestic drama, psychological darkness, romantic whimsy, and shocking extremes. In one scene, Jamie persuades his 16-year-old babysitter to practice carnal maneuvers that he learned by watching through a keyhole as Peter and his mother had rough sex; this leads to the startling image of the babysitter nearly raping her underage friend while his Super-8 camera records every illicit bump and grind.
Yet Rivals also contains almost laughably innocent scenes, such as romantic montages featuring Christine and Peter gallivanting around New York City to the accompaniment of fruity pop songs. Very little in Rivals echoes recognizable human reality, but as a moderately demented flight of fancy, it’s an interesting viewing experience.
At the beginning of the picture, Christine (Joan Hackett) and Jamie (Scott Jacoby) both seem fairly normal, if a bit high-strung and overeducated—Shah’s exaggerated version of neurotic New Yorkers. Then Peter (Robert Klein) comes along. He’s one of those only-in-the-movies weirdos, the type who spews poetic bullshit while driving a tour van around Manhattan. (Signature moment: He leaves a busload of tourists trapped in the stifling van while he courts Christine, then talks his way out of trouble by dazzling cops with a lie about intentionally quarantining the tourists.) As the relationship between Christine and Peter advances, they both reveal unsavory extremes—she’s maddeningly fickle, and he date-rapes her after she withholds sex.
Eventually, Peter decides that Christine is just as hung up on her kid as the kid is with Christine: “The way to your heart is through your nipples!” (Separately, she tells a friend that giving birth to Jamie felt like an orgasm.) Meanwhile, Jamie’s a ticking time bomb, psychologically speaking, at one point hallucinating a hippy-dippy orgy in which Christine and Peter are participants. The preposterous climax takes things even deeper into the heart of psychosexual darkness, though it’s anybody’s guess whether Shah’s sorta-arty, sorta-pulpy storytelling serves a larger theme. If nothing else, Rivals is notable as the first of several films in which Jacoby poignantly depicts youthful insanity. Others include Baxter! (1973) and the made-for-TV Bad Ronald (1974).