Cleverness should be taken in small doses. A smart 30-second commercial or an ironic aphorism can be the measure of wit, but when a two hour movie offers nothing but self-satisfied display, the cleverness can get tedious. While you can’t say Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road offers only cleverness, it does demonstrate that supercilious technique and stylish accoutrements cannot compensate for a very thin premise.
Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn star as Marcus and Joanna, a “smart” couple driving from England to the south of France. Marcus is an architect; Joanna is—well, his wife. That’s pretty much the measure of her character. And for that matter, Marcus isn’t exactly deep. The only demonstration of his profession, for example, aside from inevitable scenes of him laboring over blueprints, is his insistence they visit a few landmarks that he wants to photograph.
The film’s central conceit is to reveal the evolution of their relationship through a series of non-chronological flashbacks as they journey through rural France. In theory, those flashbacks demonstrate why their marriage is on the rocks. In fact, all they do is alternate regularly between “Happy Joanna and Marcus” and “Unhappy Joanna and Marcus,” revealing less each time they are repeated. And since not much effort is made to distinguish the stars visually at different points (Finney in particular looks basically the same throughout), you end up relying on which car they’re driving to figure out where you are in their relationship. “Ah, this an MG scene. Oh, wait, we’re in the Ford again,” etc.
The fragments are joined with undeniable snap: an action in one period may be juxtaposed with a similar one at a different time; or Marcus and Joanna might be thumbing for a ride only to be passed by themselves in one of their cars, starting a new segment for that period, and so on. Unfortunately, adroit as the editing is, the flourishes aren’t grounded in the characters’ emotions. They aren’t making the linkages, the editor is to give the director a fashionably flashy surface. As a result, to use an expression as out of date as the film’s technique, Two for the Road is a very “with it” movie.
Heavy satire is interspersed with the romance, making the latter even tougher to register emotionally. The “Ford” flashbacks, when Marcus and Joanna journey with one of his ex-girlfriends, (Eleanor Bron), her husband (William Daniels) and their unpleasant daughter (Gabrielle Middleton) seem conceived only to be annoying. They certainly do nothing to help us understand M&J. As a result, you don’t know what to take seriously. Donen and screenwriter Frederic Raphael outsmart themselves so completely that you long for some unapologetic schmaltz, but even Henry Mancini’s music can’t make us care much. And because the shiny surface has no grounding in the characters’ emotions, Marcus and Joanna end up little better than smartly turned-out models in a snazzy, feature-length commercial.