Sony // 1969 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // January 18th, 2005
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It's the only thing that there's just too little of...
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was Paul Mazursky's first film, and arguably still one of his best (if not the best). A lot of people are going to dismiss this release as a relic of the swinging times in which it was made. Yeah, the costumes are a little Austin Powers, and the look is very much late '60s chic. Still, thirty-six years after it was made, the film packs a powerful punch and will remind you how American morality has stagnated. You could release it today and it would still be hailed as visionary and prescient -- as well as perverse. See it now, because there are talks of a remake with Mike Meyers, which will completely ruin any grace or subtlety the film has. Columbia's DVD release is reason enough to look at this satirical comedy one more time.
Sophisticated Bob and Carol (Natalie Wood and Robert Culp) go to a weekend workshop at "The Institute." Right away the film whisks the viewer into a biting dead-on satire of the "EST" and Gestalt therapies popular back then (and still very much in vogue in some circles). They have an epiphany, and decide to be more honest and "open" with each other. Bob and Carol need to find a way to explore their new openness, so what can they do? How about browbeating their square friends Ted and Alice (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon) into accepting their new values? To tell you any more would ruin all the good twists that lie ahead in a truly great film.
I had not seen Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice since I was a pre-teen, so watching it now was a revelation akin to the one Bob and Carol seem to think they are having. For a movie that seems to wear freedom on its sleeve, it's really a dissertation on fear. The sexual revolution was supposed to change America, but I don't think it really ever became more than a footnote in history. How far have we come? More poignantly, how far should we go? When is sexual freedom a trap that distracts us from what's really going on? Should we blindly follow advice from modern gurus like Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil?
This is one hell of a cast! Natalie Wood (West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass) never looked better or played a more surprising role than Carol. She's striking and sexy as hell. Robert Culp (I Spy, The Greatest American Hero) gives player Bob a sleazed-out but amiable charm. Both Elliot Gould (American History X, M*A*S*H) and Dyan Cannon (Heaven Can Wait, Ally McBeal) were nominated for Oscars for their portrayals of staid and stable Ted and Alice. The entire cast gives us moments where we gasp at their prowess, but it's Dyan Cannon who steals my heart with her simple looks of desperation as her world begins to blur and her values are questioned. Elliot Gould plays his part so well I wondered if he was even acting in most stretches. The foursome assembled had a chemistry you just don't see in Hollywood anymore.
The movie is masterfully written and directed by Mazursky. Scenes pop and crackle with what seems like improvised dialogue; then long stretches of silence punctuate each character's reactions. It's an actor's movie, but the Oscar-nominated cinematography adds as much as any of the performances. It's sexy as hell for a movie with so little nudity, and upper-middle-class America never seemed so seductive.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a black comedy that milks all of its humor out of a biting sense of reality. Most people will identify with poor repressed Ted and Alice, who represent "normal" Middle America. I winced at some of the fights they had, which reminded me of old girlfriends and relationships in my past. The movie concentrates on Bob and Carol, but they represent the more forward-thinking couples who end up on the swinging scene (or at least featured in the hit reality television show Wifeswap). It's an elegant satire and a comedy of manners that will have you laughing as hard as you'll end up thinking. It reeks of California, with its tendency to have people willing to experiment with new moralities and approaches to traditional values. What nagged at me in the end was the question "who was right?" Were Bob and Carol on a road to discovery, or were Ted and Alice right to be revolted by their new definitions of "relationship" and "openness?" The ending seems brilliantly designed to give the only right answer anyone could ever give you. Maybe what we all need is to see each other finally. And in the end that message is as powerful today as it was in 1969. No matter who you end up siding with, you'll find yourself smiling at what the characters ultimately learn from all this angst about marital relations.
The DVD is a nice affair. Front and center is a great commentary done, appropriately, by a foursome. Dyan Cannon, Robert Culp, Elliot Gould, and Paul Mazursky all sit down to do one of the best commentary tracks I have ever heard. They catch up with each other, discuss how racy the movie was considered at the time, and sit in stunned awe at the final scenes. Also included is a one-on-one discussion with director Paul Mazursky at the Lee Strasberg Institute where he talks (in front of an audience) about directing this picture. Subtitles are included in English and Japanese! I got a kick out of that -- although I think most Europeans wouldn't get all the hang-ups these couples had, maybe our Asian allies can share in our examination of repression. The transfer is fine given the age of the film. It has some edge enhancement, and appears a little soft throughout. There is some dirt on the print, but it looks better than movies half its age. There is a simple stereo mix that seems fine given the dialogue-heavy format. The music (by Quincy Jones) is delivered nicely, especially in the final segments.
It's a wonderful movie Mazursky and his cast should be proud to have produced. I only wish we had more movies like this out there these days. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a perfect example of what Hollywood can't seem to make anymore. It's an honest, adult look at relationships that is as funny as it is insightful.
We must be in Utah, because I find no problem with this cast's polygamy. Absolutely not guilty, and highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Actors Dyan Cannon, Elliot Gould, Robert Culp, and Director Paul Mazursky
* "Tales of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" featurette