I'm beginning to think that maybe it's not just how much you love someone.
Maybe what matters is who you are when you're with them.
When one thinks of getting away from it all, one normally considers traveling. For many, the ultimate escape is a tranquil beach filled with white sand, warm breezes, and tall, cool tropical drinks. Then there are those who prefer the brisk air and magnificent vistas of the mountains. To them, there is no greater indication of nature's majesty and might than a snow-covered peak dappled with clouds. Be it a big city bustling with activity, a foreign locale filled with ethnic atmosphere, or a sunny seaside tourist-trapped destination, the holiday is a chance to regroup and recharge, to relax and let the lack of responsibility soothe your soul. But for some people, the notion of leaving on a jet plane for some far off fantasy land, or worse yet, a territorial sales swing, means aggravation and distress. For them, there is no escape, either personally or professionally. As the writer of travel guides for such individuals, Macon Leary should be an expert at finding the oasis in the onslaught. But instead, Macon leads vacationers and business coach jockeys into a false feeling of homesick security, teaching them ways to cope so that their destination never affects them. As the scribe behind a successful series of books, Macon is known as The Accidental Tourist, an expert in showing those who end up flying the unfriendly skies that they really never have to leave home, either in their hotel room or in their mind. Such an insular ideal is easy for this personally limited man. A recent tragedy has closed Macon off from the rest of existence, exacerbating his already sheltered personality. But he is about to learn that, sometimes, one just can't help but be changed by where life's journeys take us. There is unexpected turbulence even in the most sheltered life.
Facts of the Case
It has been a rough year for Macon and Sarah Leary. Their only son, Ethan, is dead, having been shot during a restaurant robbery, and now their marriage is faltering. Macon writes travel guides under the name "The Accidental Tourist." He provides business travelers and vacationers advice on how to experience exotic locations and new places without ever being truly touched or connected to them. He offers ritualistic behavior tips, suggestions on where to get good "American" food (even abroad) and how to stay sealed in a cocoon of safety and comfort in even the most remote of areas. Upon returning home from his most recent field research trip, Sarah has more devastating news. She can no longer live without her son. And she no longer wants to live with Macon. She wants a divorce.
Suddenly, Macon is alone, barely existing in his now empty home. Yet, he puts on a brave face and keeps up his travel/work schedule, except now he has no one to look after his dog, Edward. Desperate to board the pooch, he stops off at a pet establishment run by a bubbly, forward woman named Muriel Pritchett. Muriel takes an instant interest in Macon and the shy, solitary man is immediately put off. When he returns to pick up Edward, Macon can barely avoid Muriel's advances. A freak accident lands Macon with a broken leg. Needing a place to stay, he retreats to his family home. His brothers, Porter and Charles, and his sister, Rose, still live there. Edward comes along but is belligerent and mean. Macon needs someone to help him train the dog. Enter Muriel Pritchett, who claims to be an expert dog trainer.
As she works with Macon and Edward, Muriel begins to break down the broken man's barriers and defenses. One day, Macon's publisher, Julian, comes to call, and he falls instantly in love with Rose. Witnessing his sister's growing infatuation, Macon realizes his feelings are growing for Muriel, especially when he meets her sickly, spectral son, Alexander. Macon starts to open up and experience life for the first time since his son's death. There is talk of marriage and commitment. Macon grows. Rose and Julian become engaged. At their wedding, Macon runs into Sarah for the first time in a long while and she seems open and receptive. A few days later, she calls Macon and asks to move back into the house. She wants to try again. Muriel, who always thought Macon would return to his wife, is devastated. But she doesn't give up. When all three "accidentally" end up in Paris, old wounds are opened and final decisions are made.
What in the world of cinema happened to the career of Lawrence Kasdan? At the beginning of the '80s, he was seen as a harbinger of the baby boom generation movement (thanks in no small part to the mega-success of The Big Chill) and was worshipped as a writer of rare gifts, able to tackle the blockbuster (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) or the small film (Continental Divide, Body Heat) with equal deftness. By 1991, he had several well-received movies under his belt, and his latest, Grand Canyon, was leaving critics in awe. But since then, he seems to have stumbled off the ravine into irrelevance and routine. His Western, Wyatt Earp, was seen as an overlong version of what Tombstone did a great deal better. French Kiss took wit and cleverness and smashed them into the cloying and cutesy to create a sudsy, saccharine mess. No one remembers or cares about Mumford—which is lucky, since critics unanimously blasted his latest film, an adaptation of Stephen King's novel Dreamcatcher, calling it one of the worst movies of its genre or year. To see just how far the mighty have dropped, one need look no further than the release onto DVD of The Accidental Tourist, one of the finest films of the 1980s. Made during Kasdan's winning streak, it is a breathtaking film of emotional depth and human resonance, things that have definitely been lacking recently in the filmmaker's canon of ersatz crap.
The Accidental Tourist is a story about death and depression, rebirth and redemption. It focuses on the human need to change and adapt, both for the better and for the worse. It deals with the most devastating event that can occur in a couple's life and then mines stellar insight out of the wreckage. Oddly, it is also a sly comedy about manners and mannerisms and quirky idiosyncrasies taking the place of actually living inside of life. It is full of pain and passion, humor and heartbreak. And at its center is the notion of death. The theme of dying and its far-reaching shadow is prevalent and present in every character in the film. Macon and Sarah have lost a child to a senseless, evil act. They have also slowly lost each other. Muriel almost lost her son to poor health and disease (he is not dead, but can barely function). It's a battle she fights with the ill boy every day. She also lost her marriage as a result of the grim reaper's hand hovering over her little family. Even the rest of the Leary family, the insular, emotionally retarded clan of oddballs that plays private games and alphabetizes their food, are dealing with demise. For them, it's the loss of reality, the inability to function within the limits of normalcy set out by society. How these incredibly damaged people interact and intertwine, meeting the members of the outside world head on or from the side is the main thrust of The Accidental Tourist. Like a guidebook through life's incredible ironies and tragedies, it is a film that shows how even the most misled individuals can be redeemed through the power of human interaction.
There is an arch quality to this film that may put some people off. After all, one of the most powerful symbols for the human spirit unbound is Macon's dog, Edward. A spunky little Corgi that constantly demands attention and concern, Edward represents the essence of Macon's deceased child. Ethan loved Edward—perhaps more than his mom and dad—and Macon cannot bear to part with him for this very reason, no matter how unhappy, destructive, or ill mannered the canine becomes. Yet he cannot deal with the dog, finding him aggravating, demanding, and in need of constant attention. In many ways, this is exactly how Macon feels about his son's memory. The death of his only child has devastated Macon to the point where it seems to be constantly yapping at its detached owner to pay attention to it. Sarah senses it. She cannot live in a home so filled with the still viable presence of her beloved boy. And yet, the more that Macon tries to avoid Edward, the more confrontational he becomes (a broken leg here, a huge bite to the hand there). It's Muriel and her ways of managing Edward, both as a dog and as a representation of Macon's loss, that drive the subtle yet substantial changes that Macon goes through in the film. When he learns to deal with Edward, he learns to deal with his memories. And once he's begun this process, it's the open armed and hearted Muriel, not the cold and distant Sarah, who's ready to help with the continued healing.
It is crucial to note this dichotomy between the women in "pursuit" of Macon to understand the brilliance of what Anne Tyler, via Kasdan, accomplishes here. Muriel is the life spirit, the earth mother, but she is also calculating and challenging. She wants Macon to wake up from his endless slumber, to realize that he is still young (mid 40s) and able to enjoy the real world again. Muriel is that constant nudge, that ever-present push towards something more vital and tactile. She will never give up because she knows two things very well: (1) Macon is damaged almost beyond repair, and (2) she is capable of and destined to fix the pain. Sarah, on the other, hand functions in the exact opposite way. She is a reminder of the past and the comfort of non-confrontation. Even though she too is planning and proposing, all she has to rely on is the old Macon, the man who never opens up and keeps life at more than arm's-length. For her, the death of Ethan was the end of her life and the purpose of her marriage. Yet as the separation wears on, and Macon begins to open up, Sarah feels threatened and alone. She doesn't have a Muriel Pritchett in her life, a constant source of bemusement and support. All she ever had (and still does) is Macon. So she conspires to win him back, applying the Achilles heel of familiarity and domesticity to keep him sleeping, dead to wanting more out of life. While it is maybe painful and precarious, it is also comfy and common and representative of everything Macon is or ever stood for.
So we are left with Macon, a man who has made his living trying to show people how not to make waves, or have the surf of the foreign wash over them as they travel. It seems that Sarah's proposal would be the most appealing to him. And yet, we sense that Macon has never really been one who enjoys a solitary, secluded personality. He has a sense of humor and a way of dealing with people that is introverted but interesting. Muriel sees it. Julian (his publisher) sees it. Even his family, the hermetical Leary's locked in their own world of bad-direction sense and odd-eating habits, knows it. Macon is not, and never really was, destined for their fate. He is good at his job. He had a successful marriage. He had a son. But the loss has thrust him back, back to the primal core of his being. He needs to be reconstructed, and temptation is all around him. He is enticed by the Leary lifestyle, the idea of avoiding the phone and arranging one's life by sister-devised organizational systems. Muriel is willing to "retrain" Macon, to teach him how to connect with, not shun, human beings. And then there is Sarah, who just wants things to go back to the way they were. But it is Muriel who ultimately wins the battle, getting him to understand that life is worth living even when fate tosses hand grenades instead of softballs. To finally get him to see beyond the envelopment of his closed-world view and experience what the rest of the populace do; the crazy, chaotic and sometimes cruel world outside. The fact that she wants to help Macon do this makes Muriel the most levelheaded eccentric in the film. The fact that everyone else fights against this creates The Accidental Tourist's unique dynamic and potent drama.
For a film with such a powerful scope and universal axiom, The Accidental Tourist is played out not in grand operatic strokes but in mini-moments, small offerings of character and interaction that add up to monumental sequences of soul-tearing sorrow. Rarely has an actor let us witness the process of emotional shutdown, but William Hurt gives a performance here that is just startling. There is exhaustion in his voice and utter loss in his weary eyes. Attempts to make even the smallest connection (humor, horror) are met by a near Herculean effort to remain semi-attached. The scene where he must identify his son's body is a master class in controlled feeling and remarkable facial acting. He lets us into the entire process, from the second of devastating grief to the complete inner short-circuiting of his world. The final human blackout, the struggle to say "Yes, that is my son" signals the very instant, the exact millisecond when Macon implodes and leaves the real world, relocating to a lonely, isolated, and corrupt place in his heart. For him, the death of Ethan is the end of his attempts to exist within society. All that he has left is his work, his wife (at least, for a while), and his family. And all of these factors do not favor a process of therapy.
Geena Davis, who won a well-deserved Oscar for her role as Muriel, does something completely unique as well in The Accidental Tourist. While creating what is essentially an eccentric caricature, thrift store wardrobe and strikingly strange personal style, she uses the quiet moments of the movie to fill in the gaps, to detail and ground Muriel's mania. Though she seems effervescent and filled with life, we sense that it's all an act, a ruse to get by and win over Macon. Indeed, as the film progresses, the press-on nails and animal print clothes vanish into the woodwork and we see Muriel for what she is: a low-income single mother trying desperately to keep her head above water as the world tries to drown her in worries and worthlessness. Davis personifies this mixture of happy with hopeless, decency with desperation, so instinctually that you almost miss that she is acting. With Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and the rest of the cast, you can feel the almost obvious instances of methodology. But Davis makes everything about Muriel, from the most maddening to the mundane, seem completely natural. Hers is the best performance in the film because it doesn't reek of trying. Muriel is merely happening before us, and it's this character catalyst that makes The Accidental Tourist what it ultimately is—a film about the saving grace of human interaction.
The final brilliant stroke is Kasdan's conversion of author Tyler's wacky, wounded world to the screen with its literacy and legitimacy intact. Sure, the film can sound novel-ish, what with foreshadowing narrative, telltale dialogue, and overt symbolism (the blond boy helping Macon catch a Parisian cab towards the end). But all these elements gel brilliantly since Kasdan gives us the luxury to indulge in them. At over two hours, this is a movie that slowly unfolds, shots and set design adding depth and clarity to the constant flow of issues between the characters. Kasdan's direction and shot choices also add texture and insight. He loves to frame Hurt off to the far side, right or left, having him look in profile (and thereby never showing his true face) to whomever he is addressing. Muriel is almost always featured center screen and full faced, with just a hint of an angle (suggesting perhaps a hidden agenda?). Add Turner's almost always down-facing façade, eyes searching the floor for the pieces of her shattered life, and Rose's usually from the shoulders up framing (she is in over her head?), and you can see why Kasdan's camera is as important as the words the characters speak. He is alluding to personality through posture and composition. This sense of style, this unique point of view, helps us believe the odd world we are thrust into, a world full of eccentrics and lost souls. It is one of Kasdan's most profound works behind the camera and shows why The Accidental Tourist is more than just a series of well-written scenes superbly acted. Like Macon Leary, Lawrence Kasdan is helping us understand the slanted universe of Tyler's fiction. And he does it very well.
Ultimately, The Accidental Tourist is about stumbling upon the truth, about realizing you are indeed trapped in a place completely foreign and unfriendly to you. We see that trying to shut that world out, ignoring the reality of what is going on around you and simply trying to cope via the rituals of the past can only lead to dead ends and unpleasant memories. Muriel Pritchett teaches Macon Leary that the best travel guide, the easiest roadmap to the joy and love in the human heart is by making associations with other humans. Sure, the connecting paths may be delayed or even canceled. And you might find yourself destroyed in a crash—or an accident—that you could have never foreseen. But just because you've experienced a loss along the way doesn't mean that the journey is over. Indeed, though he champions an insular view of the globe, Macon Leary never questions why you travel or asks you not to. He merely wants you to see your vacation or trip through his jaded, jaundiced eyes. For Macon Leary, there is no escape—not from home, not from safe haven, not from heartache. But when Muriel comes along, she's that gorgeous tropical paradise, exotic and intoxicating, that you just can't ignore.
It's almost impossible to believe that this stellar film had not been on DVD until this recent release by Warner Brothers. Indeed, with the constant crop of crap that fills up the retail aisles, one has to wonder why it took so long. Fans may assume that it was because a film this great demanded an exceptional digital package. Unfortunately, they'd be about two-thirds correct. Warner does make a grand attempt at providing a visually arresting and contextually significant DVD. But along the way, they stumble. First off, the image is a little flat and lifeless. Though the transfer is solid, free of defects, and preserves the 2.35:1 original aspect ratio excellently, there is just no life here. Maybe it's Kasdan's color scheme that is at fault. Or perhaps, Warner merely offered up an old laser master and hoped it would pass digital muster. This is not to say that The Accidental Tourist looks bad. Not at all. But one senses it could have been spectacular. It just looks good here.
The sound is another issue all together. No attempt has been made to remaster the old Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix from the film's release, and you can really tell. The sound is dull, indistinct, and occasionally fuzzy. The best way to describe the aural complaint with this film is that, in rare moments, The Accidental Tourist sounds like a movie playing through a bad set of blown speakers (and yes, the critic's home system was tested afterward). Overall, the sonic presentation is only adequate. But when those odd moments occur, it is distracting (especially when it affects quiet conversations). At least John Williams' lilting, gorgeous score is preserved undamaged. It is one of the most fragile and fantastic anti-ET scores he's composed.
But it's the bonuses that really make The Accidental Tourist a must-have DVD for any fan of the film. As part of the package, we get a trailer and an insightful media featurette from the 1988 release (called "It's Like Life") that has the main players explaining the film in spoiler-filled specificity. Be warned, watching any of the extras before the film will give away crucial plot points that should stay secret to enjoy the story. Kasdan also gives us a little background on the making of the film in his five-minute introduction. Again, he tends to tell too much while he reminisces, but at least it doesn't destroy one's enjoyment of the film. The best material here, however, is in the lifted (read: deleted) scenes and Geena Davis' fascinating, scene-specific commentary. As with most alternative narratives linked to specific moments, Davis is only involved for 30 of the film's 121 minutes. But she is electric, speaking with great enthusiasm and emotion about the role, the experience of making the movie, and the utter bizarreness of the whole Oscar ordeal. While it would have been nice to have the rest of the cast (and even some of the crew) available to add their insights and anecdotes, it is glorious to have the main actress, for whom this was a career-making, award-winning role, available to speak about it. Davis' commentary is excellent.
Yet the lifted scenes are the true jewels here. They show how careful and controlled Kasdan was with his vision. Several scenes show how wildly off base both Hurt and Turner were in their performances, even going so far as to chew the scenery and misread the emotions present. You can see how these removed elements saved the ambiance of the film, keeping it stifled and stilted when it could have been The War of the Sonless Roses. Equally engaging are the removed sub-plots. We meet Macon's psychedelic surreal mother, a multi-married vagabond who would have stolen every scene she was in out of complete audience befuddlement as to what she's doing in the film. There is Dominick, a grease monkey friend of Muriel's who waxes poetic about…waxing a car. His ancillary story arch was thankfully cut before it gave away the entire theme of the film. And then there are the moments manifested instead of merely hinted at, scenes and circumstances that play perfectly in the film but look outrageous and just plain stupid played out in the bonus material. If anything, the lifted scenes define the reasons behind prudent and judicious editing. Many of the items tossed aside would have destroyed this film had they been included. Thankfully, we can see them for what they are and where they deserve to be: as part of a nice, if uneven, DVD package.
For most of us, traveling should be the way Macon Leary represents it in The Accidental Tourist. Hotels have horrendous taste in linens and most local cuisine can't be trusted. And, in reality, so very few of us venture beyond the borders of the sightseer or package plan that we never truly experience the place we are at. We keep things at a manageable distance, controlled and calculated for maximum replaceable traveler's checks memory effect. The notion of exploring beyond the guidebook, to understand something or some place new in the context of those people who interact with it everyday, is as foreign to us as the language or the customs. Yet we still yearn to escape, to vanish from our career drudgery and private Hells and seek out solace or something special. It is just too bad that we don't take Macon Leary's philosophy in a more literal fashion. For you see, Macon has the right idea. It's in the home—or specifically, the human heart—that one's ultimate peace can be found. No matter where you go, the pull of happiness and familiarity is ever present. But you don't need packets of soap powder or oversized books to experience it. All you need is love, love and interpersonal interaction. For the characters in The Accidental Tourist, there is a real fear that the freak occurrences in life, the uncontrollable tragedies that conspire to destroy us, may actually be all there is. But that fatalistic approach is flawed. Sure, death and destruction can overwhelm you. But they are not who you are. Human beings are resilient and strong. They just sometimes need someone to "train" them to cope, to guide them through the most unfamiliar of all regions. Unfortunately, not everyone has their own travel guide like Muriel Pritchett to walk them through the wounded ways of their soul.
The Accidental Tourist is found not guilty and is free to go. Warner Brothers is given kudos for providing a detailed, entertaining digital package filled with substantive goodies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Director Lawrence Kasdan
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