Paramount // 1989 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // March 11th, 2002
They already have a lot in common. Her husband is sleeping with his wife.
Cousins, a charming romantic comedy starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini, makes its way to DVD courtesy of Paramount.
Larry Kozinski (Ted Danson -- Cheers, Three Men and a Baby, Saving Private Ryan) and Maria Hardy (Isabella Rossellini -- Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, White Nights) first meet at a wedding. His uncle Phil (George Coe) is marrying her mother, Edie (Norma Aleandro). Larry is either a free spirit or completely shiftless, depending on one's point of view; his current occupation is teaching ballroom dancing. Larry and Maria get a chance to talk to each other when his wife Trish (Sean Young -- Blade Runner, Wall Street, Sugar And Spice) and her husband Tom (William Petersen -- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Contender, To Live and Die in L.A.) have disappeared, and turn up long after all the other guests have gone. Tom, a shifty BMW salesman, offers a lame excuse about the car breaking down.
When Maria tracks Larry down and asks him if he thinks Tom and Trish are having an affair the connection between the two of them grows. Soon the two are pretending to have an affair of their own -- only pretending, of course; Maria's sense of propriety won't let her have an actual affair. The two create a ruse that serves two purposes. They deceive their spouses as a form of revenge, and they deceive themselves, trying to deny the attraction that is growing between them.
The ruse doesn't last for long on either score. The attraction between Maria and Larry grows against a backdrop of weddings and other family gatherings. They soon come to a point where they are forced to decide how to handle their love for each other and their future.
Cousins is based on the 1975 French comedy Cousin, Cousine, and it manages to capture a warmhearted sense of romance. It is also a study in contrasts. The two reluctant lovers who form the center of the story could not be more different from one another, and their story is largely the story of how the easy-going, carefree Larry and the shy, staid, conventional Maria take their tentative steps towards each other. The contrasts between these two and their spouses are sharply drawn as well. Larry could not be more different from Maria's ambitious, philandering husband Tom, who is so desperately concerned with wealth and status above all else. Likewise, Larry's wife Trish, with her constant need to brag about her high IQ and prove herself to others would not be more different from Maria, with her sweet, unassuming nature. There is also a dramatic contrast in the nature of the two affairs. While Larry and Maria genuinely fall in love, Tom and Trish have only what passes for love in lesser movies than this.
Still, with such a contrived setup, Cousins could have been a typical warmhearted but sometimes bland romantic comedy. It rises above this status largely on the strength of a delightful performance by Isabella Rossellini. She is warm, honest, and tender. She is also incredibly beautiful, as befits the daughter of one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. [Editor's Note: Ingrid Bergman, for those of you who would've had to look it up, like me.] However, there is something real and natural about her, a certain accessibility that makes her seem more a creature of the real world than her mother ever was.
Ted Danson is a less ideal choice in casting than Rossellini. However, he is better than expected and manages to bring a certain friendly, breezy quality to Larry, and helps us to see why Maria might like him in the first place.
There are some good performances from the supporting cast as well. Lloyd Bridges (Hot Shots, Airplane!, High Noon) is a riot as Larry's father, and manages to steal his scenes with some excellent one-liners. Keith Coogan (Adventures in Babysitting, Hiding Out) plays Mitch, Larry's teenaged son from a previous marriage. Mitch is a twisted kid, a self-proclaimed "multimedia artist" who makes shocking video presentations, such as wedding footage intercut with scenes of starving Ethiopians and stock footage of missiles firing from silos. Coogan obviously enjoys his role here, playing Mitch's feigned weirdness with relish.
Cousins comes to us on DVD from Paramount. This is an anamorphic transfer, in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Colors are faithful overall, although the picture does look a bit yellowed in places. The image suffers from softness, especially in the early scenes; this tends to give the picture a smoky, two-dimensional look. It is also quite grainy throughout most of the movie's running time. Blacks appear to be solid and deep, but the image is overly dark through a lot of the movie, leading to a lot of murkiness and lack of definition in dimly lit scenes. This leads to some problems with dark tone-on-tone areas, such as the black outfit that Coogan wears in Chapter 7 which seems to blur together. I noted some sparkling/pixelation/blocking artifacts around a lamp in Chapter 4. Edge enhancement was minimal through most of the picture, but did crop up once in a while. Now, all of this probably sounds worse than it actually is, but the fact remains that picture quality on this disc is not what one would expect from a movie that is less than 15 years old.
Audio is presented in an acceptable Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. As might be expected, there is nothing earthshaking here, nothing to push your audio system to its limits. Cousins is very much a dialogue-driven movie, and as a result the audio mix is distinctly front-and-center oriented. Clarity is good and voices come through as pleasing and easy to understand. There are also a few surprising moments that show some good use of surround and directional effects, such as Chapter 13 which gives us a nice drive-by of Larry's motorcycle. This is tempered somewhat by the many scenes that use the surrounds only for music.
This being a Paramount disc, there are of course no extra features to discuss. On the plus side, the general lack of attention Paramount shows their DVDs also means that we don't have to sit through a lot of annoying animated menus, either.
For all its charms, Cousins is not without some serious flaws. One of these comes in the general unbelievability of the characters played by Young and Petersen. I like Petersen a lot as an actor; in his current job on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation he provides a much-needed emotional center and anchor to a large and diverse cast. His talents are not in question, but the way his character here is written is one of the big downfalls of the film. Tom as written is so completely unsympathetic that we can't really identify with him at all, and we certainly can't see why Maria would have ever been interested in him in the first place. He is set up as such a louse in the first half of the film that later on, when he finally does get a few moments to share his feelings with Maria, it feels like too much change, like the character suddenly changed direction entirely. That's okay, because later on we find out we were right about him all along.
Young is in an even worse predicament, though here it is harder to determine if she or the writers are more at fault. Granted, with the Trish character there's not a lot to work with; she's written as an ambitious, insecure shrew desperate to have everyone else know how smart she thinks she is. The character is basically a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. On the other hand, there is Young's performance. I've always thought of her as the poor man's Debra Winger, and Cousins illustrates this nicely. As Trish she is strident and brittle, and chews every line carefully. As the movie progressed, I began to wonder if Young and William Shatner were separated at birth.
Finally, the ending of the film is just a little too neat, too contrived, and too Hollywood for my tastes. Larry's father gets married, just so that we can end the movie as it began, with a wedding. I don't want to give too much away about how Larry and Maria resolve their situation, but suffice it to say that the writers blew a great chance to have a bittersweet, meaningful resolution and went with the euphorian outcome, which unfortunately seems as though it would cause at least as many problems as it solved.
As a last observation, it bears pointing out what a creature of the 1980s this movie is. I found myself going through Ted Danson's onscreen wardrobe, picking out things I actually owned or wore. Off-white tweedy jacket, pink shirt, burgundy tie? Check. White dinner jacket, black pants? Check -- this particular outfit gave me flashbacks to my junior prom.
Despite some flaws including a troubling ending, Cousins is for the most part a sweet romantic movie with a lot of appeal. It is intelligent and charming, and Rossellini alone makes watching it at least once worthwhile.
It is a close call, but I find Cousins and those involved in making it Not Guilty. Paramount, on the other hand, is guilty of all its usual offenses including an indifferent video transfer and a complete lack of any extra material.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2002 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13