There is a kind of film which, while above-average in ambition and execution, can be difficult to take. Often it is a matter of filmmakers aiming for tragedy and coming closer to farce. The results do not necessarily provide the inverted pleasures of camp, however, because the people responsible are too skillful and doggedly committed to produce something accidentally humorous. Their far-too-obviously serious intentions blind them to how overwrought their material is.
Respect bordering on obeisance must be shown in Play It As It Lays because it is based on a novel by supposedly serious writer Joan Didion. Director Frank Perry obliges with all of the fashionable, fractured flash of early ’70s cinema in this story of sometime actress Maria Lang (Tuesday Weld) wife to Carter Lang (Adam Roarke), director of “existential” biker films. (That’s his description of them, not mine.) Maria tells her story in flashback from a sanatorium after a nervous breakdown when she failed to prevent the suicide of Carter’s gay producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins) who provided the closest thing to friendship possible in their overripe milieu.
Despite the occupations of the characters, Play is not about film making so much as the consequences of living in a world of false values. The true values remain unspoken because the privileged characters might have to give up something to embrace them. Instead, they are free to make each other miserable and whine about it. There is no obvious reason for their unhappiness, so they jump from one unsatisfying encounter to another.
B.Z.’s nihilistic wit expresses the “nothingness” the others cannot confront and Perkins lends the pretentious flatulence more resonance than it deserves. He almost makes B.Z. sympathetic as he tells Maria that she too will come to recognize the meaninglessness of it all. Maria, though, cannot quite bring herself to join B.Z. in despair for reasons as obscure as the source of their disaffection. (Perhaps she sees the potential in her suffering for a book deal…?)
It’s enough to make you wonder how anyone can stand being rich, beautiful and celebrated. The film provides a kind of Jacuzzi realism in which it is a toss-up which is thicker, the smog or the attitudes. People zoom around the freeways, skip out to the beach, sleep with whomever is convenient, wallow in emollient hedonism and think that they are thinking because they occasionally feel a little guilty about it. Life can be really tough sometimes.
Far from damning, the self-produced troubles of people in fantasy land with too much time and money on their hands make work like Play perversely pleasurable. Life in the Hotel California may be hell, but the lubricious luxury sure looks nice from the outside. Therefore, the message of this feature-length commercial for photogenic misery is as clear as it is unintentional: Play it as it lays in LA, join the party and get yourself some.