Juxtaposing the countless slights that unhappily married people inflict upon each other with a sociopolitical backdrop comprising petty crime and vandalism, the relentlessly downbeat character study Desperate Characters strives for a very specific mood of oppressive malaise. More often than not, producer-writer-director Frank D. Gilroy, who adapted the movie from a novel by Paula Fox, hits his target. From start to finish, Desperate Characters is intelligent, mature, and severe. The film also benefits from strong performances—something of a must since the cast includes only five major characters—and leading lady Shirley MacLaine demonstrates admirable restraint while portraying a woman at sea in her own life. That said, Gilroy’s dialogue borders on pretentiousness in nearly every scene, and the lack of tonal variety makes the picture a bit of a drag.
The rarified vibe of Desperate Characters is epitomized by an early scene, during which someone innocently asks MacLaine’s character how she feels. “Fatigue, anemia,” she responds. “All the symptoms of irreversible loss.” It’s true that the people in Desperate Characters are all affluent, hyper-educated intellectuals. Still, one wishes that Gliroy—who earned fame as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Subject Was Roses—had dug deeper into his bag of tricks, since the times when he relies on visual metaphors instead of simply articulating everything through dialogue add tremendously to the film.
MacLaine and Kenneth Mars play Sophie and Otto Brentwood. She’s a book translator between projects who has too much time on her hands, and he’s a lawyer in the midst of a separation from his business partner. Over the course of the film, the couple deals with emotional distance, the lingering effects of an affair, startling encounters with gutter-level crime, and the heavily metaphorical presence of a bite from a stray cat that may or may not be rabid. Gilroy presents the film somewhat like a stage play, with extended dialogue scenes in tight settings. As a result, much of the picture is quite arch. When Otto declares, without any evidence to support his statement, that the aforementioned cat is not rabid, Sophie retorts: “The American form of wisdom—no room for doubt.” Otto: “Do you hate cats?” Sophie: “No, I hate you.” A very long vignette involving Sophie’s older friend and the friend’s love/hate dynamic with an ex-husband makes for even slower going.
All in all, however, Desperate Characters basically works. At its best, the picture captures what happens when people fall out of sync with each other, and the visual motif of New York City in decline parallels the ennui pervading the story. It’s also interesting to see a solid dramatic performance from Mars, whom most moviegoers know for his comic work in Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968) and Young Frankenstein (1974).
Desperate Characters: GROOVY