1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice March 13, 2020
oing away with the old and replacing it with the new is, at least on an individual basis, easier said than done. The eponymous characters of Paul Mazursky’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” understand this almost as soon as they start to seriously attempt to imbue their lives with the “new.” They push forward anyway. What I’m talking about when I’m talking about “the new” is the the sexual-revolution ethos of the late
1960s, which extolled the virtues of candor and openness in one’s relationships. That with increasing ubiquity naturally, and with increasing force, challenged the more conservative domestic mores of the generation before and the generation before that. The couples driving the movie — superficially happy Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) and their best friends, more neurotic pair Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon) — got married in the 1950s, and have for years clung to the marital customs they were taught as kids and have long tried to make real for themselves. But now that they’re getting older (they’re in their mid-to-late 30s, and have at least a child each) and feeling more and more ideologically and sexually old-hat in comparison to the generation below them, a disaffection inside them has started to simmer.
The simmering has been going on for a while but really gets going as “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” opens. The first couple of scenes see Bob and Carol at a weekend retreat (a clear imitation of the stuff going on at the Esalen Institute at the time) in the California hills. The couple, alongside a motley crew of other white upper-to-middle-class malcontents, participate in a number of “cathartic” exercises led by a serene guide — pillow-beating, “healing” hard eye-contact-based activities, sitting in circles and expressing what you honestly “feel” rather than think or are simply curious about. The takeaway from the weekend, for Bob and Carol, is not only that they should be more truthful with one another and their loved ones but also that they should be more sexually free. If they can be assured that at the end of the day all other encounters are purely physical and the transgression is immediately brought to the fore so that it isn’t technically a transgression after all, then why not?
They share all this with Ted and Alice over an Italian dinner the day they return. Ted and Alice think it’s all very silly; they give each other “the look” a few times, which the newly frank Bob feels the need to point out. Carol is so earnest about it all that she asks their waiter what he really feels about his service tonight. (Then grabs his hands and kisses them.) It especially gets Alice going a few days later when Carol blissfully reveals that she’s just found out that filmmaker Ted had an affair recently with a blond in San Francisco while he was working on a documentary. That’s supposed to be a good thing? Even if Bob and Carol’s attempts to parrot the “freedoms” of the supposedly uninhibited youths a generation under them strike them as contrived, Ted and Alice do start to more pointedly reexamine themselves and their marriage. Alice tells her therapist one session that she just isn’t in the mood to “do it” these days; at another point during her scheduled time the therapist points out that Alice said that she “liked” Ted and “loved” their child. Why is that? Ted in private reveals past infidelity; in the middle of the movie, mostly because I think he wonders if he could do it with Bob and Carol’s same nonchalance (he hasn’t struck any sort of deal with Alice, though), he sleeps with a woman sitting in the row next to him on the flight home from a business trip.
Bob and Carol are only public beacons of sexual liberation. They’re pretty privately gawky when it comes to actually putting into practice the things they tout to Ted and Alice. When Bob confesses to the affair with the blond in San Francisco, Carol goes from being upset (she tries to cover up her shock and hurt with equanimity) to being outwardly, enthusiastically accepting. She talks of feeling closer than ever to her husband. When Bob returns home from a work trip early and discovers that Carol had her European tennis instructor sleep over, he at first instinctively starts to go down the I’ll-kill-this-son-of-a-bitch hole but then realizes, when Carol points it out, that she was OK with his reveal of infidelity, so shouldn’t he react similarly? The sequence concludes with Bob and Carol’s obviously perturbed one-night stand sharing a drink together. Bob unconvincingly pretends that he isn’t feeling knocked over.
“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” climaxes in its central quartet, shortly after their Las Vegas vacation has begun, attempting to have a foursome in a hotel suite before heading downstairs to the Tony Bennett show set to start in a half-hour. The initial suggestion gives way to a for the most part successful first few steps, then anticlimactically concludes with a what-the-hell-are-we-doing halt. It’s the first time in the movie, which is primarily made up of a handful of long scenes during which we alternately watch this couple experience various shades of discontent, where the what-the-hell-are-we-doing thing really makes them stop what they’re doing. Before then, the what-the-hell-are-we-doing thing, which is entrenched in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’s feeling out of time and out of place, is what leads them to commit open infidelity, say unwise things to their therapist, question their lives. Asking what the hell am I doing? intermittently prompts behavioral changes.
The movie is patently about the phenomenon that was in no doubt being experienced by the bulk of the Silent Generation by the late 1960s — among other things the same sort of sexual and domestic unease. The film, though, is more broadly a fairly universal one about dissatisfaction and the lengths to which we might go to hold it off. The visit to the hillside retreat is a testament to this. This isn’t a bawdy partner-swapping sex comedy — it’s more about people who think they could handle being the real-life equivalents of people starring in a partner-swapping sex comedy movie but then realize they’re more ill-suited than they’d like to think. Once the social mores of a particular era have been ingrained, it can be rather difficult when the shifts are in a lot of ways all-encompassing rather than minute to effectively make changes. There’s also the truth that years into their marriages and after achieving what they think they’ve always wanted (or have been told they’ve always wanted), a restlessness will remain regardless of what superficial alterations you make. Bob can grow his hair out to imitate the shag of a British mod and can wear beads and groovy jackets to make himself feel more in stride with hipper Woodstockers. But how much can that really do to unfasten his fears of aging?
The four actors are excellent — Culp just right as someone who masks his clear insecurity with ersatz with-the-times confidence, Wood better than usual as the housewife who is portrayed as having not much of an inner life and as a result is much better at giving herself over to all this liberation stuff than her husband and friends. Cannon and Gould particularly make an impression, though. Cannon, the most reasonable of the bunch, gets more compelling the more she starts to notice that she isn’t quite as happy as she has long thought she was; I dug Gould as the neurotic who is so uncomfortable with Bob and Carol’s newfound libertine qualities that it almost makes him more intrigued.
The funniest (and best) scene in the movie involves Ted and Alice in bed at totally opposite ends of the energy spectrum: Ted is “in the mood” whereas Alice assuredly isn’t and would just rather go to bed — it climaxes when Alice half-seriously jokes that she’ll just take some sleeping pills and Ted can do what he will with her only to burst into a fit of giggles when she realizes that she’s all out. The other “best” scene is the one where Alice is with her therapist; Cannon exquisitely oscillates between good humor to despair to gnawing discomfort. Her performance is peppered with clever detail throughout the movie but I especially liked the way her hands scratched at her knee, her legs, as she makes confessions, like an attempt to blame her discomfort or the truths she doesn’t want to admit to herself on parts of her body rather than Alice herself. Alice winds up not resolving anything that afternoon — her therapist makes sure that her next batch of verbally acknowledge realizations come at their next session.
When “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” ends, nothing is resolved, either. There’s a sense that its two couples will keep looking for a “resolution,” whatever that means, employing myriad things to try to artificially make one happen. Mazursky slyly instills in us the idea that as long as we’re alive the searching will never end. Reaching satisfaction is but a Sisyphean task; the events in the movie are, for the characters, just one of the attempts. A