Petered Out

Is it just me or does anybody else out there have a problem with Peter Coyote as a paragon of Nineties studhood? The hollow-faced, crooked-toothed actor with the scraggly eyebrows that threaten to prolongate his creased and furrowed forehead like ivy on a pitted brick wall somehow landed the part of an irresistibly sexy expatriate American writer in not just one but two new movies made by well-known directors with serious international pedigrees. Directors who, in the past, have worked with leading men such as Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford, and Antonio Banderas. In Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, Coyote is a jaded, womanizing author with delusions of grandeur who moves to Paris and lives off a trust fund. In Pedro Almod centsvar's Kika he's a jaded, womanizing author with delusions of grandeur who moves to Madrid and lives off an inheritance. Coincidence? Doubtful. In the fickle world of big-time professional filmmaking, there is but one constant: gossip. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing. Prank? More likely. Both directors are known for their perverse senses of humor. You can easily picture the two of them in some chi-chi cafe, sipping espresso and daring each other to hinge a movie on Coyote's taciturn anti-charm. Call it directorial hubris A after all, the late, great Federico Fellini once cast Donald Sutherland as Casanova. Perhaps this is the ultimate test of a director's mettle A to choose the least likely Lothario possible and make audiences believe in him.

None of which is meant to disparage Peter Coyote, the actor. (Well, okay, maybe just a little.) While not often mentioned in the same breath as De Niro, Pacino, or Depardieu, Coyote has had his share of screen moments. He wasn't bad in E.T., and you can't blame The Legend of Billie Jean solely on Coyote. But he desperately lacks presence. Even when Pacino plays world-weary (e.g., Sea of Love), he lights up the screen. Coyote drains it. He has the charisma of Peter Fonda, the animal magnetism of Buck Henry.

Or he did, until Polanski got hold of him. In Bitter Moon, Coyote plays a garrulous, amoral, dissipated scumbag who insists on regaling an uptight Brit (Hugh Grant, of course) with the alternately titillating and repulsive tale of how he ended up in a wheelchair. The director tries to overcome Coyote's natural reserve by goading the actor over the top into a portrayal that borders on burlesque. The technique is the subject of much controversy: Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says, "If you want to see truly bad acting, watch the talented Peter Coyote debase himself here. [He is] at his frothing worst." J. Hoberman of the Village Voice counters, "Coyote gives the best movie performance of his career." Because Coyote's role is at the heart of Bitter Moon, your final opinion of the movie swings largely on your opinion of Coyote. Add this reviewer to the Gleiberman camp. Perhaps Brando himself couldn't have made this picture work, but at least he'd have made it interesting. In fact, to get a feel for what Bitter Moon is like, try to imagine Last Tango in Paris with, say, Woody Harrelson in the lead. Not a pretty picture, is it?

Polanski is no stranger to controversy, and Bitter Moon has generated more than its share (as has Kika, but that's another story). In addition to the Coyote conundrum, much conjecture has cropped up about how closely the protagonist's views on obsessive love, sadomasochism, and off-center eroticism parallel the director's own. The casting of Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's nubile, young, real-life wife, as the object of Coyote's love-lust-degradation-hatred only fuels the speculative fires.

A third flap has arisen as to whether Bitter Moon was meant to be funny. Early press releases positioned the movie as a kinky, sexually explicit depiction of a dangerously dysfunctional and self-destructive relationship as it plunges from the euphoric intoxication of innocent love into the despairing pits of decadence and self-loathing. But then the film was screened at a few festivals where viewers laughed openly at the purple dialogue and the bizarre characters, and suddenly it's being marketed as an ironic mix of psychodrama and dark humor. Certainly there are one or two funny scenes A my favorite being the one in which Coyote, in the throes of ecstasy while being enthusiastically fellated by one of his conquests, flails about uncontrollably in search of some purchase and ends up grabbing and nearly strangling the woman's poodle -- but the majority of them are funny chiefly because they're so bad. As in unintentionally.

Lines such as "Eternity for me began one fall day in Paris aboard the 96 bus," "We lived on love and stale croissants," "I loved her but our credit was running out. We were headed for sexual bankruptcy," and "I pressed my lips against hers like you mash out a butt in an ashtray" are truly dreadful, but it is never clear that the author intended them as parody. And the sight of Coyote in a pig mask and black bikini briefs lying on his back, snorting and twitching his arms and legs as part of a humiliating S&M scenario is downright embarrassing. You want to avert your eyes, which runs pretty much counter to the general concept of what movies are all about.

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