The Accidental Tourist should have a place among the best of light romances, alongside titles such as I Know Where I'm Going! and The Apartment. Charming and funny, it takes the kinds of people that movies normally make fun of - quiet introverts and sensitive souls - and creates a drama that hooks us from the start.
This is by far Lawrence Kasdan's best film as writer or director. His cast is superb, led by Geena Davis' wonderful portrait of a slightly odd but warmly caring woman who takes on the job of breaking a good man out of a crippling emotional shell. It's a captivating, amusing, and very serious movie.
The Accidental Tourist has comedy, tragedy, kooky people, a slow pace and a very dry sense of humor. Its main characters are over 30 and live quiet lives dealing with their problems and working to make ends meet. They try their best to be fair to each other and nobody wears a sign reading 'deserving hero' or 'meddling outsider.' In other words, the emotional relationships in Anne Tyler's original story relate to the complexities of real life. We have to figure these people out, but our reward is a heightened understanding and compassion.
The amazing thing is how simply The Accidental Tourist accomplishes this. We're presented with some challenging characters, to say the least. Macon Leary begins as an insensate lump who functions just well enough to write his little travel guides for people who don't want to travel. Everything about Muriel Pritchett is forward, intrusive, and loud. She's a true original character, bravely trying to make her way with an adventurous spirit and an unusual fashion sense. Her inquisitive impatience lets us know she needs to find the right person, right now. Viewers who prefer their characterizations broad and simple may become restless; Tourist requires a more inquisitive attitude.
For those of us who don't lead hard-charging lives, The Accidental Tourist is a unique portrait of sensations that don't show up in normal movies, the entertainments that make action heroes of accountants and clerks. When he's alone, Macon Leary has serious motivation trouble. Just doing his chores becomes an exercise in deliberation and will-power. His wife Sarah overdoses on his emotional deadness; neither of them has recovered from the death of their son, a murder victim. Sarah leaves to try living alone, perhaps to see if Macon will snap back to life in her absence. He instead returns to his family home, retreating to an earlier life of acceptance and predictability. It's a cozy but unhealthy place to be - one divorced sibling and two unmarried ones, all back together and feeding off one another's collective eccentricities.
Sister Rose (Amy Wright) is an obsessive who derives pleasure from absurd over-organization; brothers Porter (David Ogden Stiers) and Charles (Ed Begley Jr.) are becoming functional zombies, living comatose lives where nothing changes and one's most important task is to see that nothing ever does. When they decide the phone is a bother, they stop answering it. Macon's new girlfriend Muriel and Rose's new suitor Julian (Bill Pullman) are treated as intruders, unknown factors that might disturb the status quo.
The strength of Tourist is that it presents these amusing people as credible humans with sensitive personalities. Many would see Macon's avoidance of people as rude and boorish, and Rose's painful honesty ("You're just trying to keep me from my last chance at love") would certainly tag her as a social misfit. So thank heaven for the romantics who keep trying. Muriel Pritchett and Julian both know what they want but to win their mates must swim against a current of disapproval and rejection. It takes special sensitivity to communicate to such insular people, to break through emotional scar tissue and the mixed signals of apathy and distraction.
That The Accidental Tourist can maintain this intimate tone is a storytelling miracle; Tyler, Galati and Kasdan make skilful use of amusing narrative devices. Macon's adventure-killing travel advice (avoid anything new or unpredictable, like other humans) provides a wry counterpoint to ordinary scenes: "Don't get attached to items you might find during your trip; think of how awkward and inconvenient they may become later on." Macon's disharmony has a ripple effect when his dog Edward develops his own nervous disorder and starts biting prople, scotching the idea that Macon's alienation is a healthy state of affairs. The dog is also the catalyst for Macon's memory of his lost son, and his biting problem motivates Muriel's much-needed entrance into Macon's life.
The intelligent and uncompromising William Hurt is marvelous as Macon, communicating depths of feeling with a minimum of actorly effects. His co-star from Body Heat Kathleen Turner handles her problem role with equal sensitivity. Her Sarah is also disturbed and struggling to regain her self-possession the best way she knows how. Among the supporting cast, Amy Wright is the standout with her portrait of a woman that anywhere else would be caricatured as a fussy spinster. Everyone in Tourist is accorded respect as an individual, with a life outside the confines of their character turn.
Geena Davis's Oscar win was that rare exception when a perfectly-realized film role is justly rewarded. Her Muriel Pritchett starts out as an angular oddity almost like Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl from Popeye. She soon develops beyond being a simple kook, as proven by her understanding of unstable personalities (the dog, at first) and her determination to win over a man who is five steps removed from even considering her agenda. Muriel's startling costumes and makeup pop out of Macon's gray world like a sign of hope in the fog. By downplaying Ms. Davis' glamour, Muriel becomes a vulnerable woman with relationship problems of her own - making her more believable to those viewers convinced that attractive people by definition don't have normal relationship problems.
The Accidental Tourist has depth to spare and pulls us in with its quiet tone and delicate acting. We watch these faces for subtle hints and clues just as we watch the real people in our lives. Their thoughts and 'themes' aren't telegraphed in grand gestures and clever dialogue, either. A big help to this process is the sensitive score by John Williams, which I think is one of his best. Never resorting to coy noodling or cute effects, it sets the tone of yearning and need with its vibrating strings, and lets us know that these characters won't be abandoned.
Critic Robin Wood would surely categorize The Accidental Tourist as a 'theraputic film,' charting the healing process of an emotionally wounded person. Unlike the prime example Vertigo there are no genre twists or Gothic ironies, just the hope that happiness is possible. The film celebrates the quiet yearnings of ordinary, isolated people in a way that lifts our spirits. The text blurb on the package back is for once entirely accurate; it claims the movie 'will leave you glowing', which it does.
Warners' DVD of The Accidental Tourist is a pleasure, a special film with a quality transfer that allows it to make its full emotional impact. The dark and sometimes sombre images are textured far more finely than the old laser disc, and the score sounds even richer.
The disc has been given some welcome extras. Lawrence Kasdan is on camera for an introduction and a docu that serve as terrible spoilers and should be avoided before seeing the film. The docu has new and 1988 interviews with Kasdan, Turner and Davis. It starts badly by merely restating the film's plot, characters and themes, but the latter half improves when it gets away from this promo-type material and into more rewarding content. Geena Davis provides a partial commentary track that thoughtfully skips around the film and is perhaps a half hour long. This allows her to address her hiring, the character, the way the film was shot and her glorious Oscar night story without having to hurry up or slow down. Ms. Davis is a delightful personality and great fun to listen to.
Best of all is a tight array of eighteen deleted scenes that will be fascinating to anyone seeking insight into the post-production process. Most of the clips don't announce themselves as expendable, as they fill in extra plot points and connect dots in the timeline - yet they're not missed in the finished film. What's that new sofa doing in Macon's house? What happened to Muriel's car? Two major characters are dropped, Macon's mother and Muriel's mechanic/babysitter friend Dominick. I couldn't make casting IDs for either actor.
Some shrewd editorial judgment was used to cull this often-good material. The editorial wisdom extends to some re-shooting and telescoping of early scenes - the originals we see here are played at a much higher tension level. To recognize this and reshoot the beginning was inspired, as The Accidental Tourist now opens with a quieter series of scenes that let the drama creep up on us. This is clearly why it's a good idea to have a brilliant editor like Carol Littleton around.
These discarded clips are a real treat for those of us who have already seen the picture a dozen times. The only debatable excision explains exactly how Macon first called Muriel, filling a hole in the fabric of the finished film. The scene is a panic attack at the top of the World Trade Center and probably made Macon appear too unstable. We see his first fearful look at the tall towers and share his stratospheric tower-top view of the East River, and experience a faint panic attack of our own.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Accidental Tourist rates: