After the film was released in 1988, The Accidental Tourist scored Geena Davis a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Muriel. Viewed almost 30 years later, it feels like a forefather of a controversial trope in the romantic comedy genre: the manic pixie dream girl. Although there are debates about whether the term itself is sexist (a stance which I personally find confusing, as it exists to call out sexism), the underlying complaint that movies written and directed by men have a tendency to use quirky women to redeem their sad-sack protagonists seems like a valid issue. While Tourist contains some effective additions that films like Garden State and (500) Days of Summer don't, the same problem exists here.
First, the good: unlike the 20-somethings struggling with general post-college malaise, Macon is going through something substantial. Not just coping with the death of his son, which has caused him to retreat to controllable things, but also the structured nature of his life. Macon is a suffocatingly arranged man, whose life has descended into a chaos he has no idea how to control. Things only get worse when he decides to move out of his house and in with his sister, Rose (Amy Wright), whose pantry is alphabetized and who spends her time looking after their helpless brothers Porter (David Odgen Stiers) and Charles (Ed Begley Jr.). Even the obedience training is challenging for Macon, coming after an accident in the basement that leaves him on crutches.
Another successful aspect of the film is Hurt's chemistry with his soon-to-be ex-wife Sarah. Co-writer/producer/director Lawrence Kasdan previously worked with both Hurt and Turner on his excellent debut effort Body Heat, and the actors find further romantic sparks based on an entirely different sort of dynamic. Although Turner's character disappears for a good chunk of the movie while Macon and Muriel's relationship blossoms, it'd be a crime to overlook the effectiveness of her performance. Macon and Muriel are naturally exaggerated characters, but Turner plays Sarah with a heartbreaking sincerity, especially once she's pulled herself back together and seems interested in trying to rekindle her relationship with Macon. Her genuine happiness, nervous awkwardness, and tender sadness are moving in a way the movie almost feels like it doesn't deserve.
The big flaw with the movie is Muriel. Although the character plays to Davis' natural charisma, there's never any explanation for why Muriel is so determined to dig in and save Macon from his own depression. At first, it seems like she may have endured her own tragedy, a fellow survivor sensing the signs of trama and rushing to apply her experience, but even though her son, Alexander (Robert Hy Gorman), is lucky to be alive, no backstory or insight into her life is really revealed. The feeling that Muriel is more plot driver than a person is only exacerbated when she pushes back against Macon's offer to send Alexander to a nicer school, after so aggressively drawing him into her life to begin with. These aren't problems with Davis' performance, but likely Kasdan's adaptation of the novel by Anne Tyler -- it's hard to imagine not getting a more complete sense of Muriel out of the book than exists in the film. There's also the sense that Macon's whole situation is too perfectly designed as a metaphor. Macon's trusty carry-on follows him wherever he goes, at the same time he drags around his sorrow. Like Macon's guide, it's a little too neat for its own good.
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