Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Alan Rudolph

REVIEWED: 03-16-98

When you look at an abstract painting and you see a human figure recast in an alarmingly unfamiliar way, do you ever imagine how our world must look to the subject on the canvas? It couldn't look any more stylized than the world in Alan Rudolph's crazily romantic movies, which avoid realism the way a vampire dodges sunlight. In jazzy fantasias like Choose Me and Love at Large, Rudolph's characters float through unnamed cities in a haze of torch songs and chance encounters and penny-dreadful regrets; at night a neon moon bathes their glistening streets. His films are so totally immersed in artifice that they go beyond a movie nut's dreams. They're more like a pulpy movie character's fantasy of what it's like to be human.

Afterglow, Rudolph's 15th movie, is a characteristic grab-bag of romantic obsessions, parallel stories, cinematic quirks, and plot twists that would seem ludicrous if the writer-director and his cast didn't give in to them so fully. In one story, a young stockbroker (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting's Sick Boy) sequesters his love-starved wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) in a customized apartment that's a Jacques Tati nightmare of modernity. Across town, a former actress, Phyllis (Julie Christie), compulsively watches her old B-movies on TV--even as her husband, an amorous plumber played by Nick Nolte, tends to an ever-expanding clientele of lonely housewives.

That the plumber's name is Lucky Mann should be enough to tell you that Alan Rudolph has a streak of whimsy wider than Moon River. And it widens as Afterglow progresses: Lucky starts romancing the stockbroker's wife, and Phyl retaliates by taking up with a younger man--who turns out to be the stockbroker, natch. Just when you're losing patience with the musical-comedy plotting, however, the sad history of Lucky and Phyl's marriage comes to light, and their odd behavior suddenly takes on tragic significance. At that point, Rudolph's eccentric vision comes into focus, and his sleight-of-hand switching of farcical romance and enigmatic drama starts to work its magic.

As Phyl, Julie Christie is uncommonly broad; you can't tell where the character's overacting ends and hers begins, and her Best Actress nomination seems more like a reward for career longevity, the Oscars being something of a televised yearly tontine. But what a tender, multifaceted performance Nick Nolte gives as Lucky, the kind of irresistible rogue who melts women's resolve without even trying. Watch the scene in which Lucky unburdens his past, and you'll see Nolte segue from boyish charm to haggard sorrow in a single, subtly deepening scowl. Miller's cocky stockbroker is the least interesting of the four principals--even when his brogue surfaces at awkward moments ("moontain" for mountain)--but Lara Flynn Boyle is unexpectedly affecting in a role that requires near-instantaneous shifts of mood.

Afterglow was produced by Robert Altman, Rudolph's early mentor and career-long supporter, and there's more than a trace of Altman in the ready-for-anything tone, the fluid pacing, and the wandering camera set-ups. (Except when Rudolph's camera wanders, it has an annoying tendency to zero in on the speaker, the way a shampoo commercial always finds the perfect head of hair in a crowd.) But Rudolph's movie-drunk romanticism is his own. The ending of Afterglow is about as corny as movies get, even without Tom Waits gargling "Somewhere" on the soundtrack. And yet you're moved by how desperately the filmmaker wishes the best for his characters. If everything they've lost can be restored in the last second of screen time, Alan Rudolph will do it, because that's something only the movies can do. In a dream world, it's the dreamers who make the rules.

--Jim Ridley


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Capsule Reviews

Other Films by Alan Rudolph
Breakfast of Champions
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Film Vault Suggested Links
No Looking Back
Meet Joe Black
Something to Talk About

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