Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty-Two

Top5090s42

#42 — Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
There are a few things that inform my viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, and enhance my appreciate of it. Among these is surprising nugget that Kubrick loved the wonderfully goofy, willfully dopey 1979 comedy The Jerk.

More specifically, Kubrick greatly enjoyed Steve Martin’s performance in the film, talking with the actor about potential collaborations, reportedly including an earlier swing at the film that would eventually become Eyes Wide Shut. It may have taken around fifteen more years to make it, and the casting may have changed significantly, but I still see vestiges of the film Kubrick may have had in mind when he was trying to capture some of that Navin R. Johnson magic. The comedy is dark and warped and dry as a sun-bleached bone, but it is unmistakably as part of the film. It’s most evident in the scenes in the costume shop where Tom Cruise’s physician secures a hood and mask so he can worm his way into the seamy world of sprawling ritualistic orgies in palatial estates. There are unsettling elements as Cruise negotiates with the shop’s proprietor, played by Rade Serbedzija, or recoils from the flaunted sexuality of his pubescent daughter, played by Leelee Sobieski, but the scenes are structured comically, even pushing towards farce.

The casting of Cruise is another thing that colors the film. More specifically, it’s the casting of both Cruise and his then wife Nicole Kidman. Kubrick apparently wanted the married couple in the film to be played by a pair of actors married in real life, preferably a particularly famous couple. It adds a whole other layer of masquerade to the recurring themes of role playing throughout the film. Every person is operating with a series of false fronts, and the relationships in the film are most ruptured when the hidden facets start to show through the cracks. This especially enhances the work Cruise does in the film. I never lost sight of the fact that it was him, but then I’m not sure I was supposed to. And as he moves through scenes awkwardly, the actor often seems out of his depth in a way that actually works beautifully for his character, similarly adrift in a series of scenarios that he flatly doesn’t understand despite his best efforts to project a different, cooler persona.

Kidman’s performance is another matter. It’s a tremendous showcase for a skilled, complicated actress at a time when she was just coming into her own, taking on her work with uncommon fearlessness and creativity. She talked freely at time of the film’s release about the influence Kubrick had on her, testifying about the experience the way a true believer extols the virtues of a Virgin Mary statue that seems to cry real tears. The performance explains why. It’s a low volcanic rumble, dangerous and fiery. It’s infused with cunning, and all the more alluring for it. Like the film itself, it’s a little mysterious, challenging to viewer to find the meaning that lurks within rather than spelling out its various theses. Kidman proved to be a perfect match with this crafty master director who had one last great film in him.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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