Have you ever been to a party where someone you don't like tells a long-winded story about some fabulous adventure they had and you know it's a good yarn but you don't enjoy it because you can't get around the fact that the storyteller is a jerk? Welcome to Six Degrees of Separation.
The cinematic adaptation of John Guare's award-winning play has two big strikes against it: a shortage of sympathetic characters and an abundance of chatter. Translating a successful play to film always seems to boil down to the same dilemma -- what do you do with all the dialogue? Six Degrees of Separation's answer is simple: leave it in. The result is a witty but (surprise!) talky character study. Your tolerance for pretentious parlor patter will go a long way toward determining your reaction to it.
Guare's play was based on the true story of a young black man claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son who conned his way into the lives and homes of several well-to-do Upper East Side New York City families by deftly playing off their liberal guilt. In the movie version, Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing are Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, a high-rolling art dealer and his wife who fall under the spell of Will Smith's magnetic interloper, Paul. According to Guare's script, Paul is basically a misunderstood guy who just wants to belong, and who wouldn't mind moving up a few rungs on the socioeconomic stepladder in the bargain. He's also a pathological liar who rips off those who befriend him. In one case he crosses the line from figuratively to literally screwing a benefactor -- he swindles the male half of a heterosexual couple Paul has been mooching off of for months, then seduces and abandons the poor sap, and absconds with the couple's life savings -- and the resultant shame drives the victim to a tragic end.
Cruel, selfish, and deceitful though Paul may be, like any successful con man he has a sixth sense for what makes people tick. And for precisely that reason it's hard to understand why he would want to bond with a family as dysfunctional and soulless as the Kittredges, even with their apparent material wealth. Flan's a self-important boob who once dreamed of being a painter but lacked either the talent or the commitment (or both) to stick with it. Ouisa is his clueless wife who describes herself as "a collage of unaccounted-for brush strokes." When Paul leaves them, and the extent of his deception becomes clear, she concludes, "He did more for us in a few hours than our children ever did." Of course, her kids are whiny, petulant snots. The Menendez brothers seem like playful progeny by comparison.
Paul wins over the Kittredges by posing as a college friend of their kids who has been mugged outside the family's luxury Fifth Avenue high-rise. The couple's initial leeriness gives way to outright fawning as Paul works them. Flan and Ouisa are completely hoodwinked by this soft-spoken, seemingly nonthreatening African-American man in their midst. He's attractive, meticulously groomed, polite to a fault, articulate, and professes to be the son of a famous movie star to boot. He whips up a delicious pasta dinner from scratch, promises them bit parts in his father's upcoming cinematic production of Cats (there's no small irony in this film adapted from a play skewering the proposed movie version of another Broadway hit), and charms a potential investor (from South Africa, no less) into agreeing to loan Flan two million dollars to buy a Cezanne, which Flan will quickly resell to a Japanese collector for a tidy profit. Apparently the Kittredges have never heard the phrase "too good to be true."
But as quickly as he wins the Kittredges over, Paul squanders his good fortune by sneaking a male hustler into his bedroom and getting caught in flagrante delicto, and Flan banishes him from Eden. (He has not stolen any money or valuables from them, or threatened them with any sort of physical harm, but that doesn't stop the two from embellishing their story with comments like "We could have been killed! Our throats slit!" when they retell the tale of their night with Paul for their tony friends.) The Kittredges soon find, however, that getting Paul out of their house is a lot easier than getting him out of their heads.
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Will Smith (yes, that Will Smith, TV's Fresh Prince) is okay as the enigmatic grifter, although his Paul is too mannered and stiff to be convincing in his early scenes with the Kittredges. Smith never looks comfortable; you get the feeling he's acting, or at the very least holding himself in check, and you wonder why the Kittredges don't notice. He's much better during the crucial flashbacks to his transformation from street scum into a would-be preppy, but a few good moments do not cancel out a preponderance of lackluster ones.
It's nice to see Donald Sutherland back on top of his game as the crapshooting art speculator. He makes a convincing blustering, affluent buffoon. Stockard Channing originated the role of Guare's Ouisa on stage, and her performance here is rock solid. If there's one character in the lot you're supposed to like, it's her, but Guare's script paints her as such a self-satisfied zero for so long that it's hard to care when she has her little epiphany and starts to worry about Paul's well-being.
The title of the picture refers to the concept that everyone in the world is just six people removed from any other person, regardless of geographic location or social status. Six Degrees of Separation does a good job of illustrating both the vast differences and surprising similarities between society's haves and have-nots, and in the possibility of a convergence of such unlikelies as Paul and the Kittredges. Ultimately, however, it fails to make you care about the connection.