Chipped beef

Meaty Burt Lancaster swims home.


directed by Frank Perry with Burt Lancaster runs July 6-12 at Grand Illusion

JOHN CHEEVER'S literate concern for suburban angst has an odd, grandiose honor in print. On celluloid, however, where literacy often thuds like a pile of dictionaries, it simply sounds odd and grandiose. So goes director Frank Perry's The Swimmer (adapted by his wife Eleanor from a Cheever story), a sometimes ludicrously earnest mood piece from 1968. Playing a middle-aged golden boy who's become a social pariah in Columbus, Ohio, by losing everything, Burt Lancaster spends the entire film with his despair tucked away in bathing trunks, hoping to avoid the drooling emasculation of his former "friends" by swimming his way home through every pool in the neighborhood. It's a campy, yet weirdly compelling, crawl.

Perry's career eventually slipped and fell in a pile of his own heightened emotionalism (let's not get started on his Mommie Dearest), though lord knows he always meant it. Lancaster is primed for his duties, as always, but Perry takes all that brawn and vigor and purposefully works the poor guy here like a prized show pony. Perry receives a dubious assist from Marvin Hamlisch's goopy score. By the time Lancaster is asking a young Joan Rivers (!) to "Come with me, be my love," you know that time just hasn't been kind to the film.

And yet. . . . The delirium that makes all this an unintentional riot also has moments of ghoulish style, unsparingly revealing Diane Arbus-like portraits of the gutted husbands and frustrated trophy wives that so concerned Cheever. Lancaster's deluded hubris is shamed by a black chauffeur, and he's humiliated by unforgiving debtors in a community pool that Perry nails as the lowest depths of hell. When those naked moments wade into view, The Swimmer's cracked facade looks just right.

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