Part downbeat character piece, part fantastical Walter Mitty-style escapism, and part political propaganda, the Barbra Streisand vehicle Up the Sandbox teeters uncomfortably on the line separating comedy and drama. As a result, the film doesn’t work particularly well in either respect, with the humorous scenes often feeling too dark and the heavy scenes often feeling too flip. The movie contains many worthwhile insights about the changing roles of women in American society circa the Ms. Magazine feminism era, but none of the disparate pieces hang together well. Ultimately, the picture is little more than a footnote in Streisand’s epic career. Additionally, it is yet another frustrating entry in the wildly inconsistent filmography of director Irvin Kershner.
Streisand stars as Margaret Reynolds, the young wife of handsome college professor Paul Reynolds (David Selby). Raised by an oppressive, status-obsessed mother, Margaret wants more out of life than simply keeping house for Paul and raising their two young children. Adding to Margaret’s frustration is her belief that Paul is sleeping with one of his colleagues in Columbia University’s history department. Margaret starts experiencing grandiose daydreams, imagining herself as a sort of truth-telling feminist superhero. In the strangest episode, Margaret attends a speaking engagement by Fidel Castro (Jacobo Morales), during which she verbally spars with the Cuban leader over the role of women in post-revolutionary Cuba. Castro then invites Margaret to his hotel room and reveals that he’s actually a woman. In the film’s other outlandish fantasy scene, Margaret imagines that she’s part of a terrorist group attempting to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Milder vignettes depict Margaret’s comparatively mundane fantasies, such as standing up to her domineering mother. Buried amid the meandering fantasy scenes is a slight story about Margaret wrestling with impending life changes, such as a possible third pregnancy and a proposed move to the suburbs.
Streisand gives an ardent performance that conveys her passion for the political elements of the script, and every so often, screenwriter Paul Zindel (adapting a novel by Anne Richardson Rothe), lands a sharp line. At one point, for instance, the clueless Paul says to Margaret, “Maybe you’d be happy if you did more,” to which she replies, “You’ve got one job—I’ve got 97!” Alas, these moments are like islands of significance in a sea of nonsense. Had the fantasy scenes in Up the Sandbox been funnier and/or more purposeful, they might have helped the picture feel coherent and meaningful instead of scattershot and strident. On the plus side, the supporting performances are efficient, and peerless cinematographer Gordon Willis infuses every frame with visual elegance.
Up the Sandbox: FUNKY