Movie marketing exists to make audiences believe Hollywood’s latest mechanical repetition is refreshingly new, but it can also create misconceptions about more serious films when they fail to live up to inflated expectations. Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut is a case in point. Promoted to make viewers expect big star pornography, it is, in fact, a serious, slowly moving exploration of the power of sex to disrupt the most well-ordered lives. And when it failed to deliver on the suggestive press coverage, more than a few people sneered at it as bloated, boring, glacial evasion.
Kubrick was usually involved in the promotion of his films, so he no doubt bears some responsibility for the way Eyes was treated. He is certainly responsible for a conceptual flaw that warps the entire film. This small-scale, intimate story is staged on a scale to justify its big budget and stars (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman). Kubrick’s well known fear of flying and inability to return to the US were no doubt the reason they had to recreate Manhattan in London, but the recreation is done so well, you wonder why they didn’t just shoot in New York? The physical environment is made with the fussy care that Kubrick brought to the fabricated world of 2001, as if he were willing the unpredictability of an urban setting (or at least the illusion of it) out of hyper-control. The result is to turn the simplest action into a dogged, ponderous struggle for veracity.
The script is equally self-conscious. Inane repetitions in the dialog, like Dr. Harford (Cruise) asking his wife Alice (Kidman) “Are you sure?” and her replying “Am I sure?” feel like a need to impose formal patterns on the most banal situations. Similarly, Harford’s return to nearly all the locations he visited during his night on the prowl is the temporal equivalent of the spatial symmetry that Kubrick so loved in his compositions. The doctor’s nocturnal wanderings are otherwise as gratuitous and unconvincing as the sets are convincing. Clearly he’s looking for sex, but that feels more diagrammatic than compelling. Cruise captures Harford’s superior attitude, and it is clear the doctor is riding for a fall, but when it happens, his demons don’t seem to have any origins in the man we’ve seen. And in true Hollywood fashion, it’s all a tease anyway, since he’s always interrupted before he dirties his privates with infidelity. Consciously or otherwise, that may be the film’s most trenchant comment about American sexual attitudes.
I don’t agree that Eyes it is a dull failure, however. In fact, I think it is a major accomplishment, a fitting end to one of American film’s greatest talents. It is nonetheless a very problematic achievement that raises issues unrelated to its purpose. For ultimately, Eyes Wide Shut feels less like a film about one man’s obsessions about sex than one man’s determination to create a formally perfect world regardless of how appropriate it is for the subject.