An unflinching made-for-TV story about alcoholism energized by the casting of likeable Dick Van Dyke in the leading role, The Morning After tracks a man’s descent from managing a drinking problem to something much worse. Adapted from Jack B. Weiner’s novel by the great Richard Matheson, in one of his rare ventures outside the realm of genre fiction, the film moves at a remarkable pace, zooming from one incisive episode to the next. Van Dyke, who was open about his real-life alcoholism, attacks his role with tremendous commitment, so while he can’t quite reach the depths that, say, Jack Lemmon or Ray Milland did in their celebrated performances as men addicted to alcohol, Van Dyke erases any trace of his usual light-comedy style. Aiding Van Dyke considerably is costar Lynn Carlin, who plays the protagonist’s wife. Rather than simply delivering a rote version of the familiar “long-suffering spouse” role, she plays each scene specifically and vividly, illustrating the torment of a woman trying to reconcile the need for self-preservation with the desire to help a loved one. Other supporting players, including Don Porter (as the protagonist’s boss), render fine work as well, but the filmmakers—under the sure hand of journeyman director Richard T. Heffron—wisely keep the focus on Van Dyke’s character.
Charlie Lester (Van Dyke) works as a speechwriter for an oil company in Los Angeles. Outwardly, he lives the American Dream, with a lovely wife, Fran (Carlin), and two children. Yet what coworkers and friends are mostly too polite to mention is that Charlie drinks to excess whenever he’s near alcohol. After one too many nights when Charlie doesn’t make it home after blacking out, Fran starts to snap, kicking the film’s drama into motion. She pushes her husband to stop drinking, which only compels him to drink more, and that, in turn, causes him to show up hung over at work, infuriating his straight-arrow boss. Charlie’s episodes become more and more unruly, and on several occasions he gets physical with Fran. Every time he sobers up, Charlie gets apologetic and weepy, and he eventually agrees to try therapy. Yet even the revelation that Charlie’s self-loathing stems from withholding parents who favored his golden-boy younger brother fails to suppress Charlie’s unquenchable thirst.
The Morning After is exceedingly simple in its construction, and that’s why it’s so effective despite running just 75 minutes. Over the course of that short running time, we watch Charlie shift from a façade of normalcy to a pathetic vision of unchecked illness. The movie offers explanations and it also offers solutions, but the filmmakers let everything hinge on Charlie’s willingness to get better. Most stories about alcoholism end up feeling like PSAs for treatment options, but The Morning After doesn’t follow that path. Instead, this fine telefilm heads unrelentingly into the heart of darkness. And if you’re wondering why The Morning After isn’t in wide circulation, music is probably the reason; cover versions of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” are woven into the storytelling, and one imagines that licensing the song’s continued use is prohibitively expensive.
The Morning After: GROOVY