Hunky Shrinks and the Hot Chicks Who Sleep with Them!
An episode of Montel? No…, well, probably yes, that too, but also the subject of this week’s Hot Smackdown!
The recent release of A Dangerous Method, a mostly stodgy, stately tale of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the early days of psychiatry, immediately got us wondering when director David Cronenberg was going to return to his wheelhouse of exploding heads, talking insect-typewriters and evil mutant dwarfs wielding hammers… but additionally, what the last film was that realistically explored the uneasy temptation and ethical dilemma created by a delicate, sexually charged, psychiatrist-patient relationship. Surely this is the stuff of other great works of cinema.
But we just couldn’t come up with one, so we’re pitting it against Final Analysis (1992), a trashy Phil Joanou movie featuring three hot stars with great early ’90s hair. Smack away, you sexy things!
She’s a patient who wants to be a shrink; he’s a shrink who should be a patient. She’s hysterical, he’s calm. She’s Jewish, he’s Aryan. She’s an unsatisfied virgin, he’s an unsatisfied family man. She wants to be punished, he’s down with the punishing thing. Yes, it sounds like the recipe for a bubbly romantic comedy or a softcore Friday night on Cinemax, but in fact, it’s the ultra-serious and somewhat true story of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), two pioneers in the field of psychoanalysis who began a long and complicated relationship in 1904, when she was brought to his mental hospital, screaming and eye-rolling uncontrollably, clearly suffering from a case of Dangerous Method-Acting.
The sensitive, dignified Jung sets her right with the new-fangled “talking cure,” as developed by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), with whom he later develops a friendship. Spielrein has ambitions of her own in the field, so once she stops babbling and writhing about, Jung allows her to assist him, and the doctor-patient relationship soon morphs into one of two colleagues who are forced to confront the fact that they have what is known in psychiatric circles as “the hots” for each other. The film follows the rise and fall of Jung’s relationship with Sabina and with Freud over the next decade, which means a lot of soft-spoken arguing, cigar-smoking and occasional spanking, not necessarily in that order.
The Defending Champion
In Final Analysis, handsome but lonely psychiatrist Dr. Isaac Barr (Richard Gere) is treating beautiful but unstable Diana Baylor (Uma Thurman), who, for reasons unclear, insists that the doc meet her sister, seductive but spoken-for Heather Evans (Kim Basinger), who is unhappily married to wealthy but assholish Jimmy (Eric Roberts). Isaac and Heather fall for each other shortly before Heather, who suffers from that Blind Date disease where a mere drop of alcohol makes you loco, gets whacked out on cough syrup and caves in Jimmy’s skull with a dumbbell.
What follows is a series of twists and reversals that are partly reminiscent of Vertigo, partly reminiscent of Body Heat (itself wholly reminiscent of Double Indemnity), and partly reminiscent of Malice and a dozen other thrillers of this era in which a femme fatale seduces a gullible patsy as part of an elaborate get-rich-quick plan. And did I mention the great early ’90s hair?
This Smackdown raises an intriguing, age-old question: Would you rather see a classy but dull film, or a lively but trashy one?
Me, I’ll generally take whichever has more nudity, but it’s not always that simple (and incidentally, in this case, it’s actually the not-trashy one). There’s good trash, like, say, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! And there’s so-bad-it’s-good trash, like, oh, let’s say Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda. And there is trash that is genuinely terrible but unfortunately must-see, like (yeesh) Showgirls. And then there is a movie like Final Analysis, which is not quite bad enough or trashy enough to be fun, and not good enough to be good, so nobody wins. It was directed utilizing camera angles, San Francisco locations and music that desperately attempt to convince us we’re watching a modern Vertigo, but mainly succeed in demonstrating that Joanou, director of such memorable other titles as Heaven’s Prisoners and Gridiron Gang, is no Hitchcock. He’s not even Brian De Palma, who devoted his entire career to demonstrating that he’s no Hitchcock.
But on the other hand, it’s hard to blame the guy for going on stylistic overload in hopes of distracting from how impossibly dumb and contrived Wesley Strick’s script is. One can spot half the twists coming from miles away, while the other half are just too ridiculous to foresee. The absurdity peaks toward the end, when Basinger who hops on a cable car, toting the obligatory MacGuffin around in a shopping bag (!) and, in what can only be described as extreme serendipity, her pursuer manages to hop on a cable car heading in the opposite direction, so that when the cars pass each other, Basinger is leaning out of hers and holding the bag in the absolute perfect way for her pursuer to simply reach out and snatch it from her. You’d be able to hear Hitch rolling in his grave if you weren’t laughing so hard.
Sadly, most of the movie isn’t anywhere near that much dumb fun. Gere does nothing here to disprove the contention that from Pretty Woman on, he was the dullest leading man of the ’90s, and young Thurman is wasted in a small, thankless role. Eric Roberts assays his character’s nastiness in a manner that would be considered too cartoonish for the Disney Channel.
Speaking of over-the-top acting, you’d be well advised to arrive ten minutes late for A Dangerous Method so as to miss some truly painful work from Keira Knightley, wildly babbling in a bizarre Bond-villainess accent and jutting her jaw out so far, it threatens to engulf the rest of her head. Eventually, though, she settles down, and most of what follows is pretty subdued. In fact, it’s so subdued that it could easily induce a lengthy nap, or a vain hope that Knightley discovers a gash in her belly into which videotapes can be inserted. You wait and wait very patiently for the movie to reach whatever it’s building up to, and before you can even check your watch again, it’s over.
It’s not that it’s boring. Fassbender and Mortensen work well together and play their scenes like an expert tennis match. Cronenberg has stated that the appeal of this script (adapted by the great Christopher Hampton from his own play, which was based on John Kerr’s non-fiction book), was that of getting to direct versions of scenes he wishes he’d actually been present for. Indeed, it is something of a treat to see great actors interpreting these legendary figures and articulating their arguments so intelligently. Mortensen, in the significantly smaller role, is especially fun to watch.
But beyond that, it’s talky, dry and arguably the most static film ever made with the word “Dangerous” in the title. The kinkiness factor is pretty low, consisting of a few brief shots of Fassbender spanking Knightley (and far more gently than her character would seem to want), rendering the film not quite pristine enough for the Merchant-Ivory blue-hairs, but with practically none of the qualities that make Cronenberg’s work special either. It’s a handsome, respectable, and (mostly) well-acted production—Vincent Cassel shows up briefly as a hedonistic doctor/patient and practically steals the movie—but it never really catches fire. This significant historical episode undoubtedly makes for fascinating reading and probably even a powerful play, but it doesn’t quite have the necessary dramatic heft for a movie. One is left wishing it had been opened up more, or possibly just spiced up with an exploding head or two.
No one can accuse A Dangerous Method of insulting the viewer’s intelligence. It animates two enormously influential figures from a century ago and enables us to peek at a significant episode in their lives; if it accomplishes nothing else, it inspires curiosity about the actual story, its real-life characters and their historical impact. Final Analysis inspires curiosity about what sort of workout regimen Eric Roberts was on and what the hell ever happened to Uma Thurman. I’m less than eager to see either of them again, but given the choice, I’d have to betray my sordid reputation, take the high road, and go with A Dangerous Method.