EVERY TIME TOM Cruise and Nicole Kidman use the word "fuck" in Eyes Wide Shut, it comes out of their mouths like some new teen lingo they're not sure they're using properly. The word is not so much said as carefully pronounced, as if to express its full nuance. Similarly, Stanley Kubrick's latest and last movie has sexual content without actually being sexy or even particularly taboo; sadly, the rumors of cross-dressing and necrophilia are false. The most daring event is the sort of masked ball that used to crop up in 1960s Europorn—men standing aloof in black cloaks and grotesque masks while a lot of naked women meander about and a few intrepid souls hump dispiritedly on a piece of uncomfortable antique furniture—a display that's ornate and theatrical, yet mundane and fundamentally dull.
Eyes Wide Shut
directed by Stanley Kubrick
starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman
now playing at Pacific Place, Guild 45th, Factoria, others
It didn't have to be this way. Eyes Wide Shut starts off with a surprising, enticing lightness unseen in Kubrick flicks since Lolita; the notoriously controlling director managed to shake off the self-parody that strangled his last movie, Full Metal Jacket. Another surprise: the first half-hour of Eyes Wide Shut actually grapples with human emotions, probing the ambiguities that lie between emotional commitment and sexual desire in the marriage of Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman). But the movie soon stops being about their relationship and fixes on Bill's obsessive jealousy over one of Alice's sexual fantasies. This leads him on a curious, episodic descent into the previously mentioned sexual underworld (although perhaps "basement apartment" would more accurately describe it). Even more tame is Bill's complete lack of complicity; he never bites the forbidden fruit that's all around him. Maybe it's because any action would require Cruise to take off his underwear, which he mightily resists. (As is so often the case, female nudity exceeds male nudity by a gross margin in this movie. Tom never shows more than a glimpse of haunch; Nicole is extensively on display from top to bottom—especially bottom—as are many other women.) Bill's hands-off behavior allows the movie to take its next turn and become an old-fashioned thriller, in which an innocent man has gotten himself into something he doesn't fully comprehend but which threatens both his life and his moral code—sort of like Hitchcock with lots of tits. After the last sluggish hour, though, the movie doesn't so much end as expire.
Despite its disappointments, Eyes Wide Shut has some gripping scenes and some outstanding cameos (particularly Rade Sherbedgia as a costume shop owner and Alan Cummings as a hotel desk clerk). Tom and Nicole are only slightly distracting in their Tom- and Nicole-ness and actually do a good job. Kubrick's relentless perfectionism has worked miracles with Cruise, who largely avoids his hammy acting habits. The visual compositions are consistently gorgeous, but the editing spurts and languishes. Sometimes the pace and efficiency of the storytelling crackles; other times, it's incomprehensible why scenes take so goddamn long. Rather than summing up a career, Eyes Wide Shut feels like a transitional work from a director who's reevaluating his usual bag of tricks, finding new juice in some techniques and flogging others beyond the point of exhaustion.
In the past, Kubrick's lesser movies have survived their overall weaknesses through the director's gift for obvious yet compelling ironies; in fact, their obviousness underscores their power—scenes like the rape conducted to "Singin' in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange or Slim Pickens riding a dropped bomb like a wild bronco in Dr. Strangelove. Eyes Wide Shut never achieves that kind of crystalline metaphor, but at its best it has a lean, subtle smoothness that has just started to slide under the characters' skins when the movie gets sidetracked by the mechanics of its plot. Kubrick's possible next project, AI, was purportedly going to be about a robot boy ignorant of his artificiality. Given a career in which the most emotionally resonant character was the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this might have allowed Kubrick to fully delve into his own humanity. Too bad we'll never know.