Top 50 Films of the 80s — Number Forty


#40 — The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan, 1988)

Life moves at the same speed for everyone. It makes no adjustments for hardship or elation. It marches on with oblivious indifference to individual confusion and worry, allowing for no extra time to ponder the most complicated of decisions. This, perhaps more than any other idea, is the thread that carries through the various Anne Tyler novels that I’ve read. She mines out the tragic and the comic in the mundane, the opposite ores glittering with indiscernibly similar vibrancy. In doing so, she creates remarkably full-blown characters. The messy business of complicated plotting is outside of her interest, letting her focus instead on the people in her books, and, in turn, she understands them clear to the bone. Regardless of my own preferences, I must concede that these qualities don’t exactly call out for cinematic treatments, making Lawrence Kasdan’s adaptation of The Accidental Tourist even more special.

The story centers on Macon Leary, a writer of travel guides for people who want none of the adventure and experimentation that is the usual boon of traveling. He samples Burger Kings and chain hotels in foreign countries, hashing out suggested paths for those holding an aversion to change and deviation. Naturally, his avocation is mirrored by his approach to his personal life, a numbed progression that’s compounded by lingering grief over the death of his son, but not entirely attributable to that devastating turn. Time spent with the other members of the Leary family–two brothers and a sister–makes it clear that Macon’s perpetually perplexed view of the world was shaped much earlier. After his wife Sarah abandons him, Macon’s glum existence seems locked further into its groove, at least until he encounters an offbeat dog trainer named Muriel Pritchett.

This was Kasdan’s fourth film as a director and his third time working with William Hurt. It wasn’t just familiarity that made it work; it’s difficult to imagine any of Hurt’s contemporaries playing Macon Leary so effectively. Hurt takes a deeply internalized approach to his craft, primary revealing the character through the details he holds back. When his later career brought him less complex roles, this led to work that was almost off-putting in its seeming abstraction, but here he’s matched with a character so unaccustomed to voicing his own heart that he’s practically all nuance. It’s like he’s precision-built for Hurt’s skills as an actor. Subtly, the performance is all about contrasts, those brief glimpses of passion and personality within the frozen, aching man.

Geena Davis won her Oscar for playing Muriel, the character whose openness and happy oddity starts shifting Macon. Despite the plainly obvious temptation to do otherwise, Davis doesn’t overplay the part, emphasizing the goofiness of the character. She’s a little off from society’s norms, but not so much that she’d sweep into situations like a tornado of quirks. Within softening Muriel’s edges, Davis demonstrates how she is merely another version of normal. That may be the film’s real thesis. No matter what odd bits emerge–the Leary family refuses to answer the telephone, even when one of the brothers is lost, presumably wandering the streets; they play an inscrutable card game that involves announcing the names of medical instruments ever time they lay a card–the lives these people lead are allowed to make sense in the context of their own day-to-day. The film doesn’t try to redefine “normal,” but it does allow that standing definitions may be too confining.

Kasdan delivers the film as a small master class in understatement, up to and including the tender, lovely music score by John Williams. The Accidental Tourist doesn’t aggressively announce itself as some grandstand layered with profundities. It is a film that endeavors to understand, to empathize, even to nurture. Maybe life doesn’t ever slow down, but a little heartfelt scrutiny can reveal that it’s always moving at the proper speed after all.

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