Judge Chris Claro's own Spanish fling involved throwing a pitcher of sangria off the roof.
No pain, no gain, for the frolicking twain in Spain.
As a director, Alan J. Pakula was best known as the captain of commanding Hollywood vessels like Klute, All the President's Men, and Sophie's Choice—big honkin' entertainments that reaped respect, awards, and box office. Though he helmed his share of busts—Consenting Adults, The Devil's Own—he was, like Sydney Pollack, a consummate commercial filmmaker whose films were sleek and smart, but always accessible to a mainstream audience. But in addition to his high-profile projects, Pakula had a number of smaller, more intimate works in his filmography: well-drawn character studies like The Sterile Cuckoo, Orphans, and Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing.
Facts of the Case
Walter Elbertson (Timothy Bottoms, The Last Picture Show) is the nervous, unambitious, college-age son of an accomplished author. When Walter finds himself without a plan for his summer, his father packs him off on a bike tour of Spain. Once there, Walter meets Lila Fisher (Maggie Smith, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), a fortyish English woman traveling alone. Tentatively, these two skittish people inch toward each other, forging a connection built on pain and loneliness.
Preconceptions, whether positive or negative, are dangerous things. They can create expectations that are impossible to reach or they can poison an open-minded assessment of a creative work. It's hard to avoid them and it's even harder to overcome them. I went into Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing with the notion that it was a curio, a caprice concocted by a carte-blanche director coming off a hit (Klute) and a screenwriter—Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Spider-Man 2)—who was still new to the game. It appeared to be one of those projects that seemed like a nice way to spend the summer: a picaresque two-hander about two loners against the backdrop of the Spanish countryside.
On its face, that's exactly what Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is. But watching the way Pakula's direction and Sargent's script allow two initially broad and obvious characters to deepen and mature makes the film a revelation. Pakula has always gotten the best from actors—he led Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, and Jason Robards to Oscars—and the work here of both Timothy Bottoms and Maggie Smith is incisive and affecting.
Bottoms' Walter is a fidgety, insecure mess, seemingly incapable of manning-up. His father's disgust at Walter's immaturity is evident in the long opening speech which Pakula films cleverly, keeping the image of the old man obscured as the camera alternates between leather-bound volumes of his writing and the face of his lost son. Smith's Lila is loneliness in a sun hat. Ensconced in the back of a tour bus, prim and bespectacled, her nose buried in a Spanish phrasebook, the character doesn't beg for pity. She makes her aloneness her strength and her attempts to maintain her solitude, in the face of Walter's early clumsy advances, are funny and touching.
Pakula allows the two characters to find one another at a leisurely pace, utilizing the Spanish scenery to great effect. To watch Walter and Lila carry on their affair against a more pedestrian backdrop would have stressed the bitter over the sweet. The more exotic Spanish locale, full of ancient castles and sweeping vistas, emphasizes the sense of beauty and discovery that the characters experience.
As the relationship deepens, Pakula shows the subtle physical changes in the characters, as well. Oversized glasses and comical hats slowly give way to a more mature, more attractive wardrobe for both Walter and Lila. Tonally, too, the film shifts from broad to intimate, with an admission late in the film that colors all that has come before it.
Sargent's screenplay for Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing provides the actors an opportunity to play a range of emotions that make their characters more than just standard film tropes. Both Bottoms and Smith show real facility with the comic elements—Smith, in particular, stands out in a scene in which she makes a call to the home for the elderly in which she lives with her aunts—and the way they find the foibles in their characters and make them real makes the film's payoff that much more affecting.
Though I went into Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing with misgivings—not unlike sitting down for a meal of some exotic, unexplored cuisine—I came out feeling like I had discovered some rare treasure to share with those who are transported by delicate stories of fragile people who discover strength they didn't know they had.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where have you gone, Timothy Bottoms? With your feline eyes and inscrutable visage, why have you been relegated to the land of B-movies and TV guest shots? (I won't even discuss your early-21st-century phase in which you played President Bush in not one, not two, but three separate projects.)
Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing came in between The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase, two iconic films that won Oscars for their supporting players. How Bottoms could have been on such a roll, working with directors like Pakula, Peter Bogdanovich, and James Bridges and ended up co-starring in late night Showtime fare is a sad mystery. His performance in Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing proved that he was ready for bigger things.
Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is released, for some unfathomable reason, as part of Sony's daffy, baffling "Martini Movies" collection. Originally intended as an umbrella for Sony's catalog films with male appeal—The New Centurions, The Anderson Tapes—somehow this got thrown into the mix. Its presence as part of the collection is thoroughly incongruous, like having Adam Lambert perform the national anthem at an MMA competition. In fact, the disc's only nod to being part of the collection is a recipe, printed on the disc itself, for a "Love Me Martini," which incorporates amaretto, peach schnapps, and vodka.
The recipe, and some trailers for Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing and some other Sony product, are the only things that could be considered extras on the disc. In the technical department, the disc also leaves some things to be desired. While the sweeping Spanish vistas, shot by old reliable Geoffrey Unsworth (Murder on the Orient Express, Superman) are majestic and inviting, the transfer of the film doesn't do them justice, muddying them under a preponderance of grain. The audio mix is crisp, offering a clean balance between voices, ambiance and Michael Small's (Brighton Beach Memoirs) score.
If you're in the mood to unearth a beautifully rendered story—a big-budget director's excursion into the land of filmmaking in miniature—pick up Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing. It's a gem.
Not guilty. We're glad this suspect came out of hiding.
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