Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is an honest attempt to deal with the 'free love'
extremes of the late sixties. It can also be interpreted as a rationalization of
reckless irresponsibility on the part of affluent pre-Yuppies infatuated by the
new permissiveness regarding sex.
The film's confused characters express the confusion of the times, even as they
emancipate their emotions by spouting feel-good rhetoric. Paul Mazursky's film is
frequently described as a satire but certainly doesn't play like one. To Savant
every scene seems 100% earnest, even if Mazursky leads off with Handel's Messiah
playing over shots of sun-worshipping nudists.
Bob and Carol Sanders (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) attend an Esalen-style encounter session and are inspired to attempt full honesty and emotional openness in their lives. This alarms their best friends Ted and Alice Henderson (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon), especially when Bob admits to having an affair on a business trip, and Carol openly welcomes his candor. Bob in turn has to accept his wife's freedom to have an affair of her own, and the inaudible but real sound of marital taboos shattering has a strong affect on both couples. Alice, previously the most uptight member of the foursome, eventually challenges them all to be really honest about what they want, and on a weekend trip to Vegas declares that the solution is an all-out orgy.
I've always been suspicious of outside attempts to influence my thinking, and the group
encounter methods shown for perhaps the first time in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
provoke the same reaction. By admitting that one is looking for something missing
in life, the participant opens up to new experiences that are only as genuine as
the personalities involved. Just as my teenaged Tae Kwon Do children thought it
hilarious that their martial arts instructors shouted for them to "Meditate!" as
if ordering a high kick, telling people to be honest with each other produces not
honesty, but instead surrender to the will of the instructor or the peer group. (Personal opinion.)
So it doesn't at all seem like a good thing when the Sanders confront the Hendersons
with their "lack of emotional openness" and "unwillingness to be honest." Bob
practically bends Ted's arm to his way of thinking. The foursome already has a
great fondness for each other but that natural state is seen as inadequate to Bob
and Carol, who insist that every bit of "love" be brought out into the open. Each
person finds his or her own level of comfortable interaction, and I frankly have
little use for Hollywood types that insist on getting all huggy-feely. When casual
acquaintances greet each other with profuse expressions of affection, it waters
down the currency of affection.
If anything Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice comes off as an honest exploration of
the difference between free love and loving relationships. The whole 'revolutionary'
concept behind the original Free Love movement was that by having only loving
relationships with our neighbors and friends, hostility and aggression would vanish,
you know, the flowers-in-the-gun-muzzle thing. That, and by eliminating sexual
hang-ups, people would be emancipated from the rules of "the establishment" and free
to invent better ways of living. Right on. It all sounds great, but I never saw it
work well for young hippies unless they had some outside source of finance. These
chain-wearing, Jaguar XKE driving hipsters smoke pot and think they have it all,
but they're exactly as Bob describes himself, a middle-aged guy trying to act
younger than he is.
1969 audiences were surely fascinated by Bob & Carol's open-minded application of
new rules to deal with marital infidelity. Bob and Carol believe that it's cool to
have sex outside the relationship so long as the relationship isn't threatened.
That's fine and dandy, but who can promise such a thing? Isolating sex from emotional
commitment only works for predators and randy youngsters who think they're getting
away with something. And it's wrong to assume that the outside partners just want
sex as recreation. Most people who claim that are looking for something deeper.
Although I don't think that many picked up on it at the time, it now appears that the
Carol character (Dyan Cannon) shows the other three the folly of their ways by proving
that she's no prude and bravely calling their bluff. The others are coy and smug about
their comfort level with sexual openness, but Carol has the guts to push the hypocrisy
to the limit. If sex doesn't mean anything, she says, let's all get naked and have an
orgy. I think that's practically the last dialogue in the movie. When the foursome
in a bed scene doesn't gel, all must face the fact that total freedom with no strings
attached is a hollow goal. The film ends in a limp Fellini-esque scene that uses the
Burt Bacharach song What the World Needs Now (is Love Sweet Love) as a feel-good
crutch and an Easy Out.
There's a lot of honesty in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice - it commendably confronted
issues on everyone's mind - but in 1969 it could go only so far. When films like
Carnal Knowledge picked up the torch and continued forward with the issue of
the sexual revolution, they invariably turned dark and malevolent, eventually coming
full circle with the downright punitive Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
The four main actors do a fine job, especially Robert Culp and Dyan Cannon. Both Natalie
Wood and Culp are able to deliver the difficult "you cheated but it's okay and I love
you" scenes without coming off as total idiots.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice sports a fine enhanced
transfer and good color. Quincy Jones' unobtrusive score is nicely presented. Paul
Mazursky dominates an audio commentary that reunites all of his stars save the beloved
Ms. Wood, who died in 1981. The director also shows up in a lively interview taped at
the Strasberg Theater Center West in 1983, plugging a new book.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: interview docu with Mazursky; commentary with Mazursky, Cannon, Culp and Gould
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 10, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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