In Full Swing: Sexual Liberation in L.A.

Wally Wolodarsky’s Seeing Other People , from a screenplay by Maya Forbes and Mr. Wolodarsky, has managed to offend many reviewers with its bawdy plot premise. Back in the libertine 70′s, it would’ve barely raised an eyebrow-but I don’t recall even the wildest café society stalwarts of that era participating in the sexual activities portrayed in this movie. Even so, there was a lively counterculture operating in mainstream moviemaking back then, and it was seemingly intent on abolishing decades and decades of repressive instincts in cinema in one fell swoop.

Seeing Other People ‘s licentious leads, Julianne Nicholson and Jay Mohr, are instinctively likable performers. Commercial gardener Alice (Ms. Nicholson) and TV-sitcom writer-producer Ed (Mr. Mohr) have been living happily out of wedlock in Los Angeles for three years. We see them together through Ed’s contented voice-over and a montage of blissfully shared activities: how they enjoy Saturday nights playing Scrabble at home instead of gallivanting around nightclubs. Then, just as they’re about to get engaged, they’re involved in a potentially fatal car accident. This brush with death prompts Alice to brood over her meager pre-Ed sexual experience. She suggests that they both start “seeing other people” before they tie the knot for good.

Ed insists from the outset that he simply cannot handle Alice seeing other men, but Alice’s resolve is strengthened when, at her engagement party, she peeks from a safe vantage point at one of the waiters making it with one of the women invitees. Alice’s reaction of pleasurable titillation suggests to her that seeing other people is the only cure for the jaded state of her relationship with Ed.

Mr. Wolodarsky and Ms. Forbes, the husband-wife writing team behind the film, have enriched their subject by devoting quality time to two other couples with different kinds of complications. Alice’s abrasive sister Claire (Lauren Graham) enjoys insulting her grossly unfaithful British husband Peter (Bryan Cranston) in public, while planning to do some cheating of her own. Ed’s idealistic friend Carl (Andy Richter) deplores the notion of “seeing other people” for a couple as “made for each other” as Alice and Ed, but finds himself in a difficult situation with a divorced mother (Helen Slater) whose little boy hates Carl for trying to replace his father by “wrestling with his mother” every night.

Alice and Ed have no shortage of listeners with whom to share their shifting feelings as the “experiment” progresses. Alice is always checking her affinities with her business partner, Venita (Niki J. Crawford), while Ed weighs the moral lectures he gets from Carl against the immoral encouragement he gets from his agent, Lou (Josh Charles).

Ed is a reluctant swinger at first, to the point that he feels humiliated by not getting it up on his first post-Alice date, particularly when his disappointed pickup sweetly suggests that he might be gay without knowing it. But once he gets the hang of playing the singles game, he wants it to continue indefinitely. By contrast, Alice is unable to prevent her supposedly painless and affectless one-night stands from degenerating into sticky mini-entanglements. She decides with rueful disenchantment that as much as she tries to make herself feel like “a piece of meat,” she always ends up in a relationship, however rancid, because that’s who she really is. Meanwhile, Ed has embarked on a disastrous erotic adventure with a seemingly sweet and sensitive waitress who turns out to be a crazy crackhead with a Harvard education.

There is in Seeing Other People some of that cantankerous L.A. biliousness that makes Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm the great comedy show of our time. But there’s also redemptive grace and humility in the final images of Seeing Other People . Alice and Ed, much the worse for wear, eventually join each other as humbled survivors from their separate sexual shipwrecks. There’s a lost-and-found innocence in their characters which Ms. Nicholson and Mr. Mohr express beautifully.

Social Lubricants

Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes consists of 11 confrontational vignettes compiled by Mr. Jarmusch since 1986. Each one consists of two or three participants in varying degrees of prior acquaintance meeting and briefly conversing in a public though barely occupied place. Far from being an ode to the joys of two minor vices in the lubrication of conversation, the encounters are more often painful power struggles and reluctant reunions. The best and most fully developed entry is the double cat-and-mouse game played by actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, taking turns being the cat springing the trap on the mouse. Using their own names and celebrity personae, the two actors set each other up for an ironic showbiz parable; the emotionally needy Molina is rejected by the more successful Coogan, only to find himself in the driver’s seat after a cell phone call from a “hot” director, Spike Jonze.

Almost as compelling is the tour de force dual characterization by Cate Blanchett of an Australian movie star and her underachieving cousin, whom she meets in the lobby of a luxury hotel in between publicity interviews. As much as the star tries to be gracious and tactful, the loser-cousin becomes ever more bitter and resentful. The lack of an ironic twist in the situation is typical of most of the other episodes as well. The cumulative effect of the almost total absence of story switches is like watching a long series of short shaggy-dog stories and attempted jokes without a punch line.

Still, in a hit-and-miss production like this, the misses are never egregious enough to diminish the entertaining amiability of the proceedings. Talented farceurs like Steve Buscemi and Bill Murray are somewhat wasted as clownish stooges for completely unfunny pop performers such as Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee, for the cornpone racist Buscemi character, and GZA and RZA-whoever they are-for the mirthlessly gullible Murray character (which is hardly typecasting).

More interesting by far are Iggy Pop and Tom Waits and Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankolé in standoff situations built on stubborn misunderstandings. The film begins on a comparative high note with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright as two good-natured screwballs, and it ends with a lyrically poignant epiphany with Bill Rice and the once-impish Taylor Mead, now almost unrecognizably aged, slipping into a sweet dream orchestrated by a beautiful Gustav Mahler song.

Deeper Love

Lee Chang-Dong’s Oasis , from his own screenplay, continues the steady stream of distinguished Korean films to our shores. There’s no particular pattern to these films, and Oasis is clearly one of the strangest films from anywhere, focused as it is on the socially disruptive romance between a slightly retarded and socially maladjusted ex-convict named Hong Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu) and Han Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), a young woman almost completely disabled by an attack of cerebral palsy.

Even if one fancies oneself compassionate to the plight of the handicapped, one may not wish to spend much of the two hours watching the grotesque grimaces and contorted body movements of Han Gong-ju as she allows herself to be paraded across town by her devoted, if slightly demented, lover. But take my word for it: Oasis is one of the most deeply felt love stories of the screen in ways that you must endure a little suffering of your own to appreciate. Oasis is passionate without being sentimental, and poetic without being evasive or euphemistic. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The closest approximation is Luis Buñuel’s steadfast Goyaesque gaze at the rural Spanish inhabitants deformed by poverty and malnutrition in Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (1933).

Only in N.Y.

Richard Fleischer’s So This Is New York (1948), from a screenplay by Carl Foreman and Herbert Baker (based on Ring Lardner’s novel The Big Town ), was the late Stanley Kramer’s (1913-2001) first film as producer-auteur. This savagely comic blast at the Big Apple from a mock-touristy middle-American point of view was reportedly revived at the urging of Martin Scorsese and Peter Scarlet, executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival, for two showings at the festival after a hiatus of 56 years.

According to Randy Kennedy’s informative and insightful article in The New York Times (May 4, 2004), Kramer’s widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, was persuaded by festival organizers to lend a copy of the film she and her husband had donated to the University of California, Los Angeles. I hope that it’s picked up by a revival house for an extended run. The film is certainly much funnier than almost anything coming off the Hollywood assembly line these years.

I must correct one minor inaccuracy in Mr. Kennedy’s article that states: “And so the movie quickly dropped from sight, never opening, except for a brief appearance in a theater in Far Rockaway, Queens-in the city for which it was named.” As it happens, I saw So This Is New York in New York back in 1948 at least a half-dozen times, since it was on the bottom half of a double bill with Howard Hawks’ rousing Western, Red River (also 1948). It can be argued that this was the best double feature of all time. It can be also argued that the film was not a first-run hit because a) it had no stars to supply even a vestigial love interest, and b) it lacked even the slightest bit of sentiment-a commercial no-no for feature-length comedies since the early 20′s.

Henry (Here’s) Morgan-the “Here’s” to distinguish him from an excellent character actor named simply Henry Morgan-was a popular radio personality with a wry, relentlessly skeptical delivery; in other words, a wise-cracker whom movie mass audiences in the late 40′s had long since learned to dislike. Virginia Grey as his wife and Dona Drake as his man-crazy daughter were talented but pretty much no-name performers. Morgan executed his raisonneur and narrator functions efficiently enough, but the biggest laughs came from hilarious blowhard types, including Rudy Vallee, Hugh Herbert, Bill Goodwin and-funniest of all-a small, rotund, cherubic actor named Dick Elliott, with a rollicking yet rasping laugh that was one of the most distinctive expressions of malignant mirth in the history of the American talkies.

In So This Is New York , Elliott’s sheer gusto transforms ordinary insult lines into the roaring sounds of oceanic farce. Still, the very funniest thing is that after 56 years, the anti–New York jokes work just as well as they ever did.