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Love & Pain & The Whole Damn Thing

Sony Pictures // PG // September 8, 2009
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted September 5, 2009 | E-mail the Author

Alan J. Pakula's Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1972) is a leisurely, contemplative, oddball road movie of the sort currently shunned by all but the most adventurous filmmakers - an inwardly-directed, quiet story that focuses on the a single pair of characters and their romantic misadventures during a trip through Spain.

Walter Elbertson (Timothy Bottoms) is the son of successful historian and author. Overshadowed by his father's success, Walter suffers from a lack of direction, is asthmatic, and has spent some time in psychiatric therapy. Having failed to graduate from college on schedule, he faces an aimless summer - that is, until his father sends him on a bicycle tour of Spain. Unable to keep up, he abandons his tour group for one traveling by bus. There, he meets Lila Fisher (Maggie Smith), an Englishwoman who has taken the trip for reasons of her own. The two interact with great awkwardness and discomfort, but once they realize what a couple of misfits they are, they bond, leading to a tentative romance. Although Lila is wary at first of the fifteen-year gap in their ages, she willingly succumbs to Walter's passion and enthusiasm. Walter and Lila separate from the group and continue on their own tour of Spain, leading to some comic set-pieces and personal revelations as their relationship grows.

There is something very special about this movie. I think its smallness, its willingness to focus upon these two characters without shying away from their strangeness and unlikely pairing, is both brave and realistic. Romance often happens when you least expect it, and neither Walter nor Lila has taken the trip to Spain looking for it. There is nothing fantastical, easy, or ideal about the circumstances under which they fall in love. In fact, their courtship is as herky-jerky as it could be. They meet when Walter literally jumps onto the tour bus and sits down next to Lila, his melted candy bars oozing out of his backpack, onto her dress. Their first kiss occurs as part of a virtual (if unintentional) assault on Lila after a night of dancing; she ends up with a black eye. Walter interrupts their first attempt to make love, sending Lila out of the room tripping over her own underwear. These are the kinds of incidents that, should they occur on the average date, send would-be lovers into a period of isolated celibacy. But Walter and Lila are not average people. They are plainly meant for each other. And they persevere in their relationship, taking the initiative to separate from their tour group and take a chance on love while touring Spain on their own.

The movie is held together by a spare, thoughtful screenplay by Alvin Sargent, and by the crucial lead performances. Bottoms' portrayal of the wildly awkward Walter reminds us why he was a major actor through the 1970s. Walter is moody and quiet, with sudden outbursts of shouting and spastic movement; he's unpredictable, naïve, and wise all at once. Smith's portrayal is even more complex because her character is so restrained, and, well, British. We know very little about her background, except that she's from Bournemouth, and that she suffers from an unspecified neurological malady. Smith invests the character with such great, deep feeling, but does so behind the exterior of a very fussy, agitated, and beautiful woman who feels doomed to be an old maid. We want Lila to find some sort of happiness, as she is clearly in extreme discomfort with her surroundings and with herself.

Director Alan J. Pakula is best remembered for his paranoid thrillers Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men. Here he is equally adept at handling this very small-scale character drama. He and Sargent have carefully tuned the development of this strange and tender relationship. As I suggested earlier, the pacing here is slow, but appropriately so. There is plenty of opportunity to see the Spanish towns and countryside explored by George and Lila, captured lovingly by Geoffrey Unsworth. The scenery is complemented by a minimal, guitar-oriented score by Michael Small. Rarely for a film from the 1970s, the movie doesn't look or sound very dated. The filmmakers wisely allow the locations to determine the visual approach and the score is subtly Spanish-flavored.

This film is being released by Sony as part of their borderline-insulting "Martini Movies" line. As my colleague Paul Mavis recently said in his review of The Pursuit of Happiness (1971), there is nothing kitschy or camp or "retro" about this movie. It's a thoughtful film - leavened by comic moments - and it deserves to be taken seriously. With the "Martini Movies" line, Sony has trivialized the films its packaging this way, making them seem frivolous and irrelevant. Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is neither of those things; it deserves to be seen and admired and discussed.


The Video
Par for the course on the "Martini Movies" releases, Sony has provided a clear, clean enhanced 1.85:1 transfer. Colors are bright and the excellent photography is captured in a fairly film-like presentation. Unsworth eschewed many of the more trendy - and therefore dated - visual techniques of the era, using naturalistic lighting schemes and few filters.

The Audio
A clean mono track is provided. The track has a good dynamic range and the music is reproduced well. Optional English subtitles are available.

The Extras
Zero. A few trailers, including the feature's - that's it. A beyond-foolish martini recipe is printed on the disc itself.

Final Thoughts

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing treats its central May-September romance with great sensitivity, good humor, and real tenderness. A patient script, affect-less direction, and committed performances make this somewhat obscure film worth seeking out, despite its befuddling inclusion in the "Martini Movies" line. Recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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