At his best Stanley Kubrick was one of cinema’s masters – his filmic sense utterly dwarfed that of all but a handful of his contemporaries – and his reputation can’t be made to sink or swim on the basis of a single picture. His overall contribution wouldn’t be diminished even if his final work turned out to be nothing but humbug, and it would be nearly impossible to improve on his legendary reputation for iconoclastic filmmaking. Still one hoped, if for no reason other than old time’s sake, that Kubrick would, in his last at-bat, yank one out of the park.
It was not to be. Eyes Wide Shut, despite its modest air and some haunting scenes, is a flawed work by Kubrickian standards, and it’s almost certainly the work of a man who thought he had another movie or two left in him. The warmest and most personal film that Stanley Kubrick ever made, it’s remarkable more for the new directions in which it took him than for its accomplishments.
The story is like a hybrid of James Joyce’s "The Dead" and Scorsese’s After Hours. A successful physician named Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) learns that his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), once yearned for a stranger with a lust so intense that it reduced to a joke her love for Bill – it made a joke of him. The confession triggers a wild response in Bill; his latent fears of inadequacy and all the sexual urges that he’s been stifling for years rush headlong to the surface, and he takes to the streets of Manhattan searching for a partner with whom he can avenge and reassure himself. In a 48-hour odyssey he encounters a variety of characters – the brittle daughter of a patient who’s just died, a streetwalker, a barely pubescent temptress, a gang of gay-bashers, the costumed attendees at a swank orgy – that force him to reconsider the shape of his sexuality. By the time all of his potential partners have melted back into the night, Bill has realized that he and Alice have been living inside a dream, one fed by their pampered existence and by their beautiful but absurdly demanding bodies.
Eyes Wide Shut marks several departures in style and tone from Kubrick’s earlier work. Gone, or nearly gone, are the flattened morality-play figures and caricatures that populated his films from Dr. Strangelove through Barry Lyndon. Gone are the breathtaking but ostentatious compositions that brought some of his earlier films to a standstill; replacing them is a freer, more modestly scaled sense of beauty that’s easier on the characters. Gone, too, are the overexposures and austere set decorations that used to bleed the humanity out of his films; here Kubrick uses a grainy look that turns on diffused shades of yellow and blue, and sets that – with one deliberate exception – look cluttered and lived-in.
Kubrick also upends his pet screenwriting ploy of having his characters mask their emotions beneath a formalized, studiedly polite diction that manages to sound simultaneously robotic and mellifluous. (It is done to perfection in The Shining’s job-interview scene.) Eyes Wide Shut finally shows us how Kubrick’s characters respond when this line of defense is breached. A bantering, empty relationship between Bill and one of his patients (Sydney Pollack, in a marvelous performance) has turned by the film’s end into a heated effort by one man to disillusion the other. And in the film’s best-written scene, the Harfords, stoned and ready for bed, fall into one of those crazy late-night arguments that just keeps escalating until Alice throws her past infatuation in Bill’s face.
The film’s big set-piece (and the movie’s sole example of the outsized filmmaking we associate with Kubrick) is the already famous orgy scene, and it’s one of the silliest scenes of his career. Between its Black Mass overtones and the beauties with their perfect, cantilevered breasts, it’s like a live-action version of a Frank Frazetta comic strip; it’s an adolescent imagining of how rich men get their rocks off. More importantly, the film spends a lot of time convincing us that Bill is going to confront the darkest part of himself at the orgy – he’s obsessed with it from the moment he hears of it, and the whole film builds up to his sneaking into it – but it turns out be only one more stopping point along his journey. When he returns to the mansion in the light of day, we want much more than a manservant delivering a note that warns him in hilariously bad grammar to stay away.
This decision – to return us to the world we know and to forbid our entry into the world we came to the movie to see – is typical of Eyes Wide Shut. The movie seems to represent the triumph of an impulse that’s been part of Kubrick’s work since 2001: he’s finally produced a film that’s more rewarding to analyze than it is to see. An early sequence in which Alice must resist an older man’s worldly blandishments may be aesthetically justifiable, but dramatically it’s still like watching a third-rate Jeremy Irons recite pick-up lines from Emmanuelle. The film’s dialogue is studded with portentous mid-sentence pauses, pauses made agonizing because we know so precisely how the sentences are going to end.
The film is sloppy in some surprisingly basic ways. The identity of a woman whom Bill encounters at the orgy is so obvious that we assume it’s being left unstated for a reason other than that Bill himself hasn’t figured it out. And a crucial shot of a mask toward the end is shown prematurely to the audience; it looks as if Kubrick forgot to snip the shot out after playing around with it in the editing room one night.
Cruise shows a dryer, less abrasive side of himself than we’re used to seeing. He may not ruin the movie (the recurring nightmare of Kubrick fans everywhere for a couple of years now), but his clenched features never make us feel the depth of Bill’s vertigo and paranoia. Kubrick himself may have noticed this: there’d be no need to keep feeding us Bill’s visions of his own cuckolding if Cruise kept us keyed in to what is driving the character on.
Kidman comes off much better, whether she’s taking a rapturous swill of champagne or pouring out her long confessions to Bill. And in some moments, such as when she takes an oddly long whiff of her underarm after applying deodorant to it, she makes you wish that the movie were telling her story instead of Bill’s – at least she’s doing something unusual.
Eyes Wide Shut may become known as the movie that lays Kubrick’s reputation as a misanthrope to rest: the film’s final note of cautious reconciliation is a surprisingly hopeful affirmation of marriage and family. Bill and Alice have been given a chance not only to survive, but even to grow, and that is more than any of Kubrick’s characters have had in a very long time.
– Tom Block