Turns out Blake Edwards’ hit sex comedy 10 (1979) presaged a string of Hollywood movies exploring the angst of middle-aged white men who consider marriage and success so inhibiting they must reaffirm their identities with extramarital sex, all under the guise of “finding themselves.” Yes, this is Me Decade entitlement taken to an absurd extreme—adultery as personal growth. Films about midlife crises were nothing new, of course, but something about this group of pictures reflects a collective reaction to body blows inflicted upon the institution of marriage during the Sexual Revolution. In fact, many of these flicks directly question the relevance of lifelong monogamous relationships. Yet despite all their with-it posturing, these pictures are also moralistic and old-fashioned. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Cowritten by Love Story’s Erich Segal, A Change of Seasons begins on a lurid note—nubile coed Lindsey Rutledge (Bo Derek) repeatedly emerges from the bubbling water of a hot tub, her long hair flailing and her pert breasts glistening in slow motion. What better illustration of the fantasy element coursing through this subgenre’s veins? The fellow in the hot tub with Bo is graying college professor Adam Evans (Anthony Hopkins). Later, Adam’s wife, Karyn (Shirley MacLaine), correctly guesses that he’s having an affair. He seems perplexed that she’s upset, offering idiotic remarks such as the following: “Men are different—our needs are more baroque.” Karyn responds by taking a lover of her own, freespirited handyman Pete Lachapelle (Michael Brandon). The two couples take a vacation together, and the trip is staged like a watered-down version of French farce, complete with the surprise appearances of new characters at awkward moments. Notwithstanding the spicy opening sequence, A Change of Seasons is all talk, with the cast spewing endless psychobabble about Oedipal issues and such, and the quasi-feminist ending is but one of many false notes. Costar Mary Beth Hurt lands a few jokes as the flummoxed daughter of philandering parents, and Brandon has a nice moment of pathos revealing his character’s overwrought backstory, but A Change of Seasons is ultimately just a lot of navel-gazing superficiality set to sickly-sweet music by Henry Mancini and a slew of awful songs. A baroque-en record, if you will.
The Last Married Couple in America proceeds from a stronger comic premise and mostly avoids melodrama, but it’s not much better as a cinematic experience. George Segal and Natalie Wood play Jeff and Mari Thompson, an affluent Los Angeles couple who, as the title suggests, become exceptions to the rule as all of their friends divorce. Predictably, Jeff and Mari stray from each other, although the reasons why are neither clear nor convincing. After all, they’re still so hot for each other that at one point, they get hassled by police for making out in their car. Apparently the issue has to do with boredom, peer pressure, and the fact that Jeff has become a fuddy-duddy—somewhat hard to believe seeing as how he married an artist. (Mari is a sculptor.) In a sign of the movie’s desperation to generate hard-punchline jokes, the filmmakers include a pointless subplot about Walter (Dom DeLuise), a friend of the Thompsons who becomes a porn star. This leads to a “wild” party featuring adult-film actors and hookers, but rarely will you witness a tamer depiction of debauchery. Only the bits with Bob Dishy as a sleazy lawyer who seduces divorcées are amusing, simply because Dishy commits so wholeheartedly to his role.
Loving Couples has echoes of A Change of Seasons, and not just because Shirley MacLaine costars—it’s another story about spouses attempting to accommodate each other’s infidelities. This time, the wife is the first to wander. In the opening scene, Dr. Evelyn Kirby (MacLaine) rides a horse and catches the eye of young stud Greg Plunkett (Stephen Collins) as he drives alongside a horse trail. He crashes his car but suffers only minor injuries, so his recovery provides an opportunity for wooing Evelyn. After these two begin sleeping together, Greg’s hot girlfriend, Stephanie Beck (Susan Sarandon), breaks the news to Evelyn’s husband, self-absorbed Dr. Walter Kirby (James Coburn). Naturally, Walter responds by commencing a fling with Stephanie. Once the truth outs, the Kirbys separate and move in with their young lovers. Complications ensue. Featuring a threadbare storyline and noxious montages, Loving Couples is perhaps the most cynical of these films, playing the destruction of relationships for lighthearted humor.
Quite frankly, however, there’s a bit of nihilism in all of these pictures. By abandoning their principles for cheap thrills, the spouses in these films embrace a sort of spiritual nothingness. In that sense, perhaps even more disquieting than asking what these films say about their era is asking whether the filmmakers recognized the obligation—or even the opportunity—to make any sort of statement whatsoever. One more sign, perhaps, that it was just as well the ’70s were over. As a footnote, while it’s tempting to lump the 1980 Canada/U.S. coproduction Middle Age Crazy into the same category as these pictures, Middle Age Crazy casts a wider thematic net, treating adultery as a symptom of rampant consumerism. Even though it’s a weak film, Middle Age Crazy is a damn sight more thoughtful than any of these vapid flicks.
A Change of Seasons: FUNKY
The Last Married Couple in America: FUNKY
Loving Couples: FUNKY