Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)

          Only a curmudgeon could truly dislike Alan Alda’s work. A smooth actor equally adept at comedy and drama, a deft writer with compassionate narrative impulses, and a sensitive observer of the human condition, he easily qualifies for national-treasure status. That said, it’s easy to find fault with Alda’s handful of original screenplays, the first of which was this intelligent but timid political drama. Whereas Alda found a perfect vessel for his literary gifts when penning episodes of M*A*S*H, following the genius framework set by series developer Larry Gelbart, Alda’s big-screen stories succumb to excessive tendencies: He undercuts serious tales by going for jokes at the wrong times, and he diminishes credibility by making every character likeable. Peculiar as it may sound, Alda’s desire to please his audience is his biggest impediment as a movie storyteller.
          All of which is context for The Seduction of Joe Tynan, an admirable but frustrating movie. Alda stars as Tynan, a U.S. senator from New York seemingly on a path to the White House. Over the course of the movie, Tynan grows estranged from his wife, emotionally troubled Ellie (Barbara Harris); pursues a reckless affair with Southern political operative Karen (Meryl Streep); and tackles a headline-generating cause that alienates him from an aging mentor, Sen. Birney (Melvyn Douglas). The gist, obviously, is that one can’t make ethical compromises without becoming compromised on other levels, and that balancing personal responsibility with political ambition is a risky endeavor. In fact, the whole movie is as bluntly literal as the title. Consider this speech by one of Joe’s fellow senators, Edward Anderson (Maurice Copeland): “After a while, you start to forget what you’re here for. And then getting clout and keeping it is all there is. You start lying to your constituents, your colleagues, to everybody. And you forget what you thought you cared most about in life.” (Cut to a meaningful shot of Tynan looking out a window, because he’s, y’know, thinkin’ about stuff.) Given such clunky moralizing, The Seduction of Joe Tynan fails as a political story even though it’s pretty good as a character piece.
          Director Jerry Schatzberg—the former photographer whose ’70s output includes sensitive art pieces like 1973’s Scarecrowcontributes proficient but impersonal work, delivering Alda’s vision to the screen without the counterpoint of an additional artistic perspective. In the lead role, Alda wisely plays against his decent-guy persona by engaging in questionable behavior, while Streep imbues her underwritten part with engaging intelligence and luminous sexuality. Yet it’s the second-string supporting actors—Douglas, Harris, and Rip Torn—who get the most interesting scenes. Douglas essays his character’s slide into senility with grace and pathos, Harris poignantly captures a political wife’s ambivalence, and Torn energizes the movie with his character’s boisterous vulgarity. Thanks to qualities like these strong performances, The Seduction of Joe Tynan is worthwhile even though it never rises above mediocrity. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

The Seduction of Joe Tynan: FUNKY


Film Circles said...

Worth seeing for Harris' performance alone.

fakebaconimprov said...

Agree with the comment of Barbara Harris, she is the best part of this film (as she was in Family Plot). Alda's script here is very heavy handed and his later works Sweet Liberty, A New Age and Betsy's Wedding all missed their marks. Really his best film work has been Four Seasons and the acting he did in Woody Allen's films.