Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Why (1973)

          Toward the end of his erratic three-decade film/TV career, Russian-born helmer Victor Stoloff got heavy into stories about group therapy, cowriting and directing The 300 Year Weekend (1971), which was broadcast as a TV movie, and this ensemble piece featuring an eclectic cast. The premise of Why is extraordinarily simple—six people explore their issues through conversations and chaste physical contact under the guidance of a gentle therapist. Predictably, the characters are defined by their hangups. One is an out gay man who feels rejected by society, one is a junkie, one is an athlete burdened by expectations, one is a musician feeling lost because his group disbanded, and so on. At various times, group participants mask their emotions with jokes, lash out when revelations make them feel threatened, and vascillate between judging and supporting fellow particpants. It’s not exactly right to describe Why as shallow, since some of the actors endeavored to dig into their superficially conceived roles, but the results are mixed. Worse, Stoloff veers into cop-out territory with his borderline-ridiculous attempt at a transcendent finale. Still, Why is hard to beat as a curiosity and as a time capsule.
          The athlete is played by O.J. Simpson, who nearly achieves naturalism in a few scenes featuring improvised dialogue; while his performance is clumsy, this movie offers windows into his psyche that some might find intriguing. Also interesting to watch is the man playing the musician, short-lived singer and songwriter Tim Buckley. A darkly handsome dude in the James Taylor mode, he conveys both amiability and anxiety in his only substantial acting performance. Other notables include Jeannie Berlin, the daughter of Elaine May and the costar of May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and Danny Goldman, a Bud Cort lookalike perhaps best known for his bit part as an obnoxious medical student in Young Frankenstein (1974). While limited by their roles, both give nuanced turns infused with intensity. As to whether the film offers real insights into therapy—or, for that matter, into the larger subject of human behavior—different viewers will have different takeaways. For every dated line on the order of “I wanted you to pick up where I was at” or “I was laboring under a bad thing,” there’s a moment of affecting vulnerability, as when Buckley’s character articulates the challenge of living up to the image the public has of popular entertainers. In fleeting moments like that one, actors introduce a level of authenticity the overall movie arguably lacks.