Six Degrees of Separation June 3, 2022
Mary Beth Hurt
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
t the start of Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John Guare’s popular 1990 play, art dealer Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland) and his socialite wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing) head to a wedding. They can’t remember their connection to the couple; if it were happening a few days earlier they’d probably try, at least a little, to jog their memory. But something so strange, but
also kind of funny, happened to them last night that they can’t be bothered to care.
I’ll admit that that story really is something else; I probably wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else in its immediate aftermath either. Flan and Ouisa were having dinner with an old friend (Ian McKellen) at their tony high-rise apartment when they were interrupted by a young man named Paul (Will Smith) who stumbled into the doorway nursing a slash on his torso, apparently inflicted by a mugger. He said he’d come to this building specifically because he was classmates with Flan and Ouisa’s daughter at Harvard, and was able to narrow it down that they lived here.
Understandably, the Kittredges felt obligated to help out. Then obligation gave way for pleasure. So charmed by Paul’s wit, the cooking skills he politely offered as a trade-off for their hospitality, and the incredible fact that he is also, so he claimed, the son of Sidney Poitier, they invited him to spend the night and drive him to meet his dad for something in the morning. Then everything soured when they came to wake him up and found him in bed with a guy who only reacted combatively to their dismay at this surprise visitor. The story makes Flan and Ouisa the talk of the reception; their impromptu storytelling session accrues more and more nosy guests the juicier the details get.
But the anecdote’s novelty dissolves when Flan and Ouisa meet up with some old friends who live nearby and belong to the same uppercrust milieu (Mary Beth Hurt and Bruce Davison). They say they’ve experienced the exact same thing. That reveal convinces the quartet to start a semi-investigation — with the key guiding questions being who Paul is, really, and what he hopes to gain — that earns unexpected emotional dimension for Ouisa when she starts finding herself genuinely caring about the man who’s been duping everyone. (Phone calls between them become regular.) She becomes increasingly put off by how Flan and the people in their circle continue treating what has gone on purely like a colorful anecdote to trot out at parties without paying any mind to the realities of a person who, as more details emerge about him, seems to be struggling outside of his admittedly eccentric duplicity.
Schepisi tries somewhat to shake off the stage from his adaptation. The many scenes finding people sitting in circles listening to stories employ a stylish flashback device; the cameras home in intermittently on a speaker’s face in close-up to lend an uncomfortable intimacy the stage prohibits, with one particular good instance coming near the end of the film when Ouisa has an epiphany at a dinner party and can’t help herself from exploding a bit emotionally as she verbalizes a newfound change of heart. But that minor shaking can only do so much. The film still mostly has the static, stultified feeling of a filmed play, even if the decent budget is obvious and there can be some visual splendor, usually found in the velvety ostentatiousness of the Kittredge apartment.
That’s more disappointing than ruinous, though. Six Degrees of Separation still commands your attention, and you mostly feel just like those tantalized wedding guests for most of the movie. There’s also much delight to be had not just in Guare’s clever, slippery dialogue but also, initially, the excitement its leads have in being successfully scammed, thrilled to be tricked if not quite as willing to unpack how much their immediate adoration of Paul has to do with their tetchy relationship with their daughter and the empty tingles coming from close proximity to purported fame.
The early fizzy fun of the film begins evaporating somewhat when those two things come into sharper focus, and also when we get to know a couple of Paul’s other victims (Heather Graham and Eric Thal) who are young and poor, paid graver financial consequences because they trusted him, and thus starkly put into perspective what it takes to make getting scammed strangely fun versus world-shatteringly nightmarish.
The best thing about the movie is probably Channing, whose performance masterfully articulates someone coming to understand that — and be disgusted by how — fundamentally jrt and Flan’s “funny story” only helps reinforce a tacit societal understanding of upper-class superiority and those under them less as people and more abstractions onto whom they can project.
Ouisa’s emotional maturation, however, still comes at the expense of a poor, Black, and gay man whose future continues dimming while hers glows with new self-clarity. The film is implicitly critical of that and the frequency with which this narrative development manifests in movies and theater. But Six Degrees of Separation also doesn’t take the extra step necessary to make that critique not feel moderately hollow: giving Paul additional dimension that would make him more than a pure enigma whose motivations can be inferred but are never detailed enough to be wholly considered.
This attenuated quality isn’t helped by Smith’s performance: it betrays an actor trying so hard to get a handle on wordy dialogue that his portrayal overall is infected by a conspicuous self-consciousness, at odds with the light touch a successful con man must have. Smith’s gawky work doesn’t impede our enjoyment of the movie, but the not-quite-finished quality of its fundamental critique does. Six Degrees of Separation goes pretty far, and successfully, but not quite far enough to be great. B