What's a handyman to do?
Remember that old James Taylor song, Handyman?
I'm not the kind to use a pencil or rule
This is the story of that guy.
Facts of the Case
Wealthy Montreal housewife Marianne Byron (Lara Flynn Boyle, Men in Black II, TV's The Practice) longs to fill her empty, loveless life with a baby. Her husband Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting, Dracula 2000) doesn't want children—in fact, he doesn't seem to much want a wife, preferring instead to hang out with a kaffeeklatsch of gay office associates, and to entertain dreamy fantasies about matronly middle-aged women—his secretary, for one.
Hoping to light a fire under her intercourse-resistant spouse and get him on board with her reproductive program, Marianne hires independent contractor and freelance lothario Lucky Mann (a pre-Hulk Nick Nolte, saddled with one of the lamest character name-puns in cinema history) to construct a nursery in the Byron penthouse. After all, if you've got a baby's room, sooner or later you're going to have to make a baby to occupy it, right? After scoping out the grungy charms of the carpenter-slash-Casanova, Marianne decides that Lucky might just be the man not only to install the nursery, but maybe help "install" its future resident as well. She willingly becomes the latest in an apparently endless skein of lonely domestic goddesses to fall into bed with the Don Juan of drywall.
Along the way, we discover why the long-married Lucky spends so much time getting…well…lucky with women other than his wife. Mrs. Mann is Phyllis (Julie Christie, a lifetime removed from her Dr. Zhivago/Fahrenheit 451 heyday), a washed-up film actress who whiles away her days watching videotapes of her old movies, most of which appear to have been low-budget Hammer/AIP/Amicus-style gothic horror flicks. Phyllis hasn't been intimate with her husband since the couple's daughter Cassie, then in her teens, took flight for parts unknown, disgusted with her parents' profligate dissipation.
The Manns' unspoken "arrangement" allows them each to seek carnal companionship outside their marital bedroom, hence Lucky's pursuit of the grateful women he encounters on his handyman's journeys. Phyllis, for her part, is not averse to picking up younger men seeking to indulge their Oedipal urges. Younger men like Jeffrey Byron, for example.
Of course, neither Lucky nor Phyllis knows that the other's latest paramour is married to the person with whom they're presently sweating up the sheets. Therein, as someone once wrote, hangs a tale…at least, as much of a tale as writer/director Alan Rudolph is inclined to tell.
Alan Rudolph is the poi (or escargot, for the non-Pacific Rim-savvy) of film directors—definitely an acquired taste, and one exceeding difficult to acquire. I, for one, have never quite gotten the hang of him, even though his films appear at first blush to be the sort of thing I'd like—moody character dramas about quirky people, usually portrayed by talented actors from slightly outside the Hollywood mainstream. But the only Rudolph film for which I've ever mustered much excitement is the offbeat noiresque pastiche Trouble in Mind, though I tolerated just enough of Choose Me to admire the work Genevieve Bujold and Rae Dawn Chong contributed to it.
Afterglow is another Rudolph film I tried very hard to like. And, though I found many things to like within it, I still haven't entirely developed the taste. Here again, there's some fine acting on display—Nick Nolte at his scruffy, engaging best, and Julie Christie in a seductive yet heartbreaking Oscar-nominated turn—but once more, Rudolph's obtuse style-for-style's-sake approach left me cold.
One slice of the problem may be that the characters in Afterglow are the least sympathetic lot of self-indulgent twits you're likely to meet in a season of moviegoing. There's no one here to identify with or root for—not Nolte's randy Mr. Fix-It, not Christie's arch and withdrawn prima donna wife, not Lara Flynn Boyle's one-note harridan, and most definitely not Jonny Lee Miller's creepy, infantile manic-repressive. Another slice may be that the characters are not only off-putting to the viewer, but they share not an electron of genuine chemistry between them. As partners switch places and form new relationships—the love quadrangle in Afterglow is like something Shakespeare might have dreamed up after downing a spoiled crock of mead—it's impossible to believe that any of them are really interested in each other. They fall in lust only because the script demands that they do so. And never mind the nagging question: on what fantasy planet would the original couples (Nolte/Christie and Boyle/Miller) have hooked up to start with?
Without characters to care about, and a preposterous story line that drives them all into increasingly vapid and annoying actions, Afterglow grows tedious mighty quickly, despite the impressive acting by Christie and Nolte. (A raw-edged scene in which Phyllis attempts, for the first time in recent memory, to seduce her husband—only to be spurned by the already-spent and emotionally bankrupt Lucky—by itself almost makes the film worth recommending. The operative word being "almost.") After a while, I wasn't merely apathetic to the players—I was hostile. I wanted them and their petty narcissism out of my life and off my TV screen as rapidly as the laws of physics allow. Even the wistful, tacked-on subplot about the Manns' long-lost runaway daughter fails to generate more than half-hearted enthusiasm.
Columbia TriStar, obviously in no hurry to rush this 1997 title to market—Oscar nomination notwithstanding—slides Afterglow onto DVD retailers' shelves in a half-hearted, supplement-free edition under its Sony Pictures Classics imprint. I found the picture quality of the anamorphic transfer more than a trifle alarming—it's so fuzzy and indistinct I thought my contacts were encrusted with protein buildup. The soft image focus is further complicated by an overheightened color balance that only accentuates the eye-straining effect. Too bad, because somewhere beyond the fog is a wealth of attractive, stylish cinematography by DP Toyomichi Kurita (Waiting to Exhale, The Moderns). There's also a level of dirt and other visible print defects (especially at the beginning and end of the movie) that's surprising for a relatively recent production. The plain vanilla stereo soundtrack more than fills the bill for a film largely dependent on dialogue, but it isn't enough to make up for the poor video transfer.
The only extras on the platter—never mind the absurdly comical keep case copy touting scene selections and interactive menus as "special features"—are a trio of trailers for other Sony Classics films: The Spanish Prisoner, Living in Oblivion, and Mute Witness. At least the first of that trio would represent time better spent than a repeat viewing of Afterglow.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After not seeing her in many years, I was struck by how much the late-1990s Julie Christie resembles a finely matured Jodie Foster. And if I were either Ms. Christie or Ms. Foster, I'd take that as the compliment intended.
Loved Julie Christie. Loved the classy camera work by Toyomichi Kurita. Liked Nick Nolte. Hated Lara Flynn Boyle, but then, I usually do. Jonny Lee Miller…eh. And Alan Rudolph, who's still busy making films that embody his off-kilter world view whether I care for them or not…in this case, Alan, I'd rather eat poi.
For irritation and tedium beyond the limits of reason, the Judge sentences Afterglow and its iconoclastic auteur to build a nursery addition in the maternity wing of a worthy local hospital. The luminous Ms. Christie and her raffish leading man, Mr. Nolte, are absolved of all blame, and are free to go. We're adjourned.
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