Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Accidental Tourist (1988)

The first time I watched this Lawrence Kasdan film, I was of a more callow age than I am now. I felt the powerful impact of its cinematic lyricism, and could see the appeal of its story in broad strokes. Yet I was deeply wrong in my understanding of the movie's essence. I saw a conventional story of romance, as lived out by very quirky characters; their quirks being a humourous device to set the film apart from an infinite number of antecedents. Having watched 'The Accidental Tourist' again, a decade later, what I saw was a group of people who are in fact portrayed as being painfully normal. Life doesn't fall into their grasp with the same ease as it does so often for the average Hollywood cardboard cutout. Rather, they move through their existences with timid hope and awkwardness, reminiscent of so many personalities to be found among the real world multitudes. It is a story largely about affection, but it is also one heavily detailing loss. While the romance may be drawn as the most prominent plot arc – perhaps necessarily so – for the main character of Macon Leary (William Hurt), it is not just a more fulfilling relationship than his vacant marriage, but also an opportunity for him to overcome the loss of his murdered son, for whom he will inevitably feel more profound affection. The final scene of the movie is staged so that some might expect a romantic reunion akin to that of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Instead Macon's final on-screen meeting with Muriel (Geena Davis) is given second billing to his greater acceptance of the loss of his son.

Like all films that I enjoy the most, I feel great empathy with Hurt's character. I don't think I could be accused of resembling him much, and I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a child to a violent death. However, the dysfunctional, awkard characters that are the Learys are not wholly foreign to me. And, like those of my own family, their dysfunctionality does not seem ripped from the pages of Reader's Digest, but carries its own idiosyncrasies and would require volumes to describe and reference.

There's nowt so queer as folk, as my Scottish father has been in the habit of saying for as long as I can remember.

Though the Learys do seem odd on the face of it. Macon's job, as the eponymous Tourist, is to write travel guides for people who don't enjoy travelling. I personally loathe the stress of packing and catching planes, but consider exotic food and surroundings to be among the greatest of luxuries. The Accident Tourist's readership is of a different breed; the business traveler who hates absolutely everything about leaving home, and will go to great lengths to find hotdogs in London that taste just like the ones served in Yankee Stadium, as promoted by an unconvincing London hotdog vendor. The greatest irony being that Macon literally is the Accidental Tourist, and therefore must endure what are personally some of the worst inconveniences he could imagine, so that others will not suffer as much. In addition to eating foreign food, readers are cautioned about loquacious strangers – the guide's advice is to bring a book so that unsolicited conversationalists will think you are busy, the modern equivalent would be a smartphone.

In his unnamed American city of residence, Macon spends an inordinate amount of time with his three siblings, who are still single and live together. The whole family shares endearing traits, such as routinely getting lost in the neighbourhood which they have lived in for all their lives, and an OCD-like fastidiousness when it comes to groceries. That Macon lives apart from his siblings suggests that while he is woven from much the same cloth, he is slightly more socially evolved.

At the beginning of the film, we are plunged immediately into the muted drabness of his life. Subtle mentions are made about the dead son throughout the film, including one invaluable scene where he tries to make laundry arrangements more ergonomic using a skateboard. As in 'Body Heat', Kasdan and Hurt work together with Kathleen Turner, who plays Macon's wife, Sarah. She is by no means a bad person, and if their lives had not been so catastrophically altered by a cruel twist of fate, it is easy to see them living a quietly satisfied life together. As it is, she understandably cannot come to terms with the void that has been created in their household and announces her need for a separation.

Soon afterward, we are also introduced to Muriel as Macon's subsequent love interest, who could not be more opposite to Sarah. And as such, her effusiveness and lust for life are a far cry from Macon's detached relationship with the world. Soon however, there is perhaps a realization that while similarities are useful in a relationship, one that is complementary can possibly lead to an even more hopeful dynamic. There is also Muriel's son, a fragile boy – fatherless and allergic to everything, including pizza. While she is probably initially attracted to Macon because of his solemn handsomess and shy politeness, there must also be a part of her that sees his fatherly qualities from the outset. Unlike as it is with many love triangles of fiction, the question of whether Sarah or Muriel is the better human being is beside the point. Instead, we are encouraged to foster the belief that people change. In an ideal marriage, emotional growth is a shared requirement, but in the case of a lost child, the need for difference could not be more forgivable.

I started watching films that involved the participation of Lawrence Kasdan long before I was aware of him as a craftsman. He was of course a principal collaborator on the 'Indiana Jones' and 'Star Wars' franchises – films that are by and large so entertaining that they permit 'serious' filmgoers to forget that 'franchise' is a pejorative. But he has also created a body of work of extremely personal films, including the estimable 'Grand Canyon', which bears similarities to 'Tourist' with its themes of loss and human kindness. Even in westerns like 'Silverado' and the much maligned, admittedly lopsided 'Wyatt Earp', the characters feel like people who are thinking about their actions, not just mindless templates reused in last summer's big studio blockbusters.

'The Accidental Tourist' is my favourite of them all, which would likely not be the case were it not for William Hurt leading the cast, without ever diverting too much attention away from his costars. Unlike other great actors who are best known for their sheer presence when on film, Hurt seems able to play anybody. The laconic private eye in 'Body Heat', the chauvinistic professor in 'One True Thing', the gay prisoner in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman', or the downright scary mobster in 'A History of Violence'. In 'Tourist' it's as though he reached into his own soul and wrenched out a grieving father. The social hangups are also ably displayed, but they are secondary descriptors, as are his mishaps of passion. Grief is what defines the character of Macon, until he is gradually afforded what small amounts of reprieve can be expected.

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There is also a dog in the film called Edward. For most films a character like Edward would be the biggest reason to recommend them.

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