Figgis’ One Syncopated Night: Fuzzy, Beautiful, Comic

Mike Figgis’ One Night Stand , from a screenplay by Mr. Figgis, does not exactly shatter the Hollywood mainstream taboo against a black male kissing or even touching a white female, much less engaging in even simulated carnal congress with said female. For one thing, Mr. Figgis can hardly be described as mainstream in Hollywood or anywhere else. Cutting-edge is more like it. For another, Wesley Snipes had already shattered the taboo with Annabella Sciorra in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), but then Mr. Lee, whatever he is, is not exactly mainstream, either. But I will not hide behind mere technicalities. The taboo has been broken, sort of, but is there anything else worth considering in One Night Stand ?

I would say there is, though some critics are already saying otherwise. Is One Night Stand as good as Mr. Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995), with its sizzling performances by Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue? I would say No, even though One Night Stand is a very different kind of movie from Leaving Las Vegas , less pessimistic in its outcome, more satiric and sardonic in its overall tone, though not always successful in projecting a credible and sociological reality. Los Angeles and New York, the advertising business and the AIDS crisis, are hit upon as fuzzy hallucinations rather than as sharply observed perceptions. Las Vegas in Leaving Las Vegas was hazy in much the same way, but the central performances were strong enough to sustain the dreamlike milieu.

My big problem with One Night Stand is with Mr. Snipes the actor, rather than with Mr. Snipes the taboo-breaker. Despite his award at the Venice Film Festival, his ironic persona is too heavy, too solemn, too monotone for some of the lighter aspects of the scenario. The very clever trick ending, for example, would not have been out of place in a vintage Noel Coward play in the 20’s. It works beautifully for the audience, but more of the movie should have been graced with that insouciance, and it isn’t.

The fault is not with Nastassja Kinski as the married woman Karen, the other half of the one-night stand with Mr. Snipes’ married Max. Nor is there anything wrong with the syncopated sex scenes of the one-night stand itself. Throughout his resolutely offbeat career, Mr. Figgis has displayed a genuine flair for smoke-filled, alcohol-fumed eroticism between nocturnally delirious grown-ups. His own background as a practicing musician and composer is crucial in evaluating his strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller on the screen. It is not a question of form over content, style over substance, or surface effect over psychological depth. It is a question instead of staking life-and-death choices on the expressionistic expansion of a few privileged moments in a character’s existence into the total meaning of life itself. There is consequently not enough perspective, background, memory or shading in a Figgis character. There is only an explosive Now.

Yet Mr. Figgis has gone to extraordinary lengths to hurl Karen into Max’s arms with such contrivances as the 10 blocks on Park Avenue cut off for a staged parade that keeps Max from getting to Kennedy International Airport to catch a plane for Los Angeles; a shared interest in the Juilliard String Quartet’s performance of “Catavina” from the String Quartet in B-flat major (Op. 130) by Ludwig van Beethoven; and, to top off this anti-stereotypical portrait of an African-American director of television commercials, an attempted mugging in a parking lot by a man-woman team that leaves Karen so shaken that Max has to accompany her to her hotel room to comfort her. Earlier, Max has been shown rejecting the advances of a business associate. He is thus established as not your usual hot-to-trot conventioneer.

Max has come to New York to see his old friend Charlie (Robert Downey Jr.), a performance artist who is dying of AIDS. Charlie, the most charismatic character in the film, becomes its emotional core as well. It is the conjunction of Charlie’s fate with that of Max and Karen that transfigures the traditionally cynical and transient connotation of the one-night stand into something more spiritually enduring. Even in death, Charlie’s face on a memorial poster shakes the foundations of two hitherto compatible marriages.

Where the movie goes off the rails is in its Los Angeles scenes with Max and his dull, oversexed, real estate-obsessed Asian wife Mimi (Ming-Na Wen). The contest in Max’s mind between Karen and Mimi is almost savagely one-sided, unlike a similar competition in My Best Friend’s Wedding between Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. When it turns out that Charlie’s brother Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan) is married to Karen, the two couples in the Cowardian roundelay gather around Charlie’s bed and then his grave for the final semisomber, semicomic rites of realignment.

Over all, One Night Stand struck me as enjoyable entertainment despite its calculations and its contrivances, but I am not prepared to defend it to the death against its detractors. There are enough exquisite expressions in action and in repose, particularly from Mr. Downey, Ms. Kinski and Mr. MacLachlan. Even Mr. Snipes is effective in his more emotional moments, and Ms. Wen is mercifully granted a few moments of the intelligence and insight she displayed in Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (1993). Indeed, rumor has it that her part was originally written for an African-American wife and mother, but the idea of a successful African-American man cheating on his African-American wife with a blond Caucasian woman did not sit well in certain circles, particularly after the fallout from the O.J. Simpson trial and the Million Woman March. That’s America for you. Every taboo runs head-on into a countertaboo.

More Kissing Than Killing

Bill Bennett’s Kiss or Kill , from Mr. Bennett’s screenplay, starts out as the latest in a long line of two-young-lovers-on-the-run thrillers, but as the film progresses, it becomes anything but linear. The title is more than a mindless tease, as it is extracted by Mr. Bennett from four cinema-soaked lines of poetry by Dylan Thomas: “They dance between their arc lamps and our skull,/ Impose their shots, throwing the night away./ We watch the show of shadows kiss or kill,/ Flavoured of celluloid, give love the lie.”

Given that the action takes place in Australia, where the most sacred genre expectations are usually undermined by excessive eccentricity, it is not surprising that the flight of the two lovers takes many detours before the leisurely narrative surrenders all its surprises. The two lovers, Nikki (Frances O’Connor) and Al (Matt Day), are introduced to the audience in the sleaziest circumstances imaginable. Nikki allows men to pick her up at bars after she has sized them up as potential victims in a scam she runs with her boyfriend Al. First she dopes the drinks of her horny clients, and then Al comes in to supervise the robbery of their valuables. Something goes wrong with the first client we see on the screen. He dies, and the two lovers take flight with his car and possessions, among which are incriminating videotapes of former sports hero Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe) engaged in sex acts with a young boy.

Nikki and Al are soon pursued by two P.G. Wodehouse-type detectives named Hummer (Chris Haywood) and Crean (Andrew Gilbert), and, more malignantly, by Zipper Doyle, who is desperate to retrieve the scandalous tapes. Everywhere Nikki and Al go, death seems to stalk them. The first plot switch is that neither the audience nor the lovers know who does the actual killing. Al suspects Nikki in her nocturnal prowls as a sleepwalker, and Nikki suspects Al because of his bad-boy mannerisms and his inclination to play rough on occasion. Nikki has ample justification for almost anything we might suspect her of doing. In a precredit sequence, she is seen as a child, witnessing the torching of her mother by a mysterious assailant at the door. The traumatic flaming horror of that experience is reprised in various fire themes throughout the film to the point that Nikki becomes more trauma than drama.

Mr. Bennett clearly believes in improvisation as a way of varying the trajectory of this overfamiliar plot. On the whole, he succeeds the way any shaggy-dog storyteller succeeds, and that is by daring to be tedious and boring on occasion to inject some unexpected dose of apparently aimless realism into a formulaic genre. I won’t spoil the “fun” by telling you how the multiple pursuits play out against some of the most forlorn landscapes in Australia. Suffice it to say that Ms. O’Connor and Messrs. Day, Haywood, Gilbert and Langrishe are as good an ensemble as is to be found on any continent.

Figgis’ One Syncopated Night: Fuzzy, Beautiful, Comic