No matter how much an expert one might be on films and film history, there will always be a few subjects or performers that you just aren't going to know as much about. Mind you, I don't consider myself an expert – my editors and colleagues regularly outclass me in knowledge and insight – but I have spent a couple of decades watching as many movies as I can get my hands on. But one of the performers I haven't investigated with much effort is Dudley Moore, who historically speaking was a fairly huge comedy star of the late 1970s and '80s before succumbing to the degenerative brain disorder progressive supranuclear palsy in 2002.
While I was certainly familiar with some of his work, including the underrated 1990 film 'Crazy People' (I'll never forget his proposed Volvo tagline: "They're boxy, but they're good"), I actually hadn't seen many of his highest-profile or most successful movies, in particular his 1979 commercial breakthrough '10,' written and directed by another celebrated but decidedly under-researched (by me) Hollywood luminary, the late Blake Edwards. But the recent Blu-ray release of '10' by the good folks at Warner Home Video prompted me to take an overdue look at Moore, Edwards, and their famous collaboration; hence, '10' is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: '10' was released on October 10, 1979, and became one of the biggest box office hits of the year, earning more than $74 million in theaters and a reported $37 million in home video rentals. The film was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Song and Best Original Score, and five Golden Globes, for Best Picture, Best Actor for Dudley Moore, Best Actress for Julie Andrews, Best Original Score, and New Star of the Year for Bo Derek. Meanwhile, the film enjoys a 70 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: As a portrait of baby boomers unable to adjust to the culturally-liberated, free-love ethos of the 1970s, I think '10' is a pretty amazing film. There's a switch towards the end that doesn't necessarily fully redeem Moore's character George, but it does demonstrate how the real point of the movie is one more tragic than the slapstick and sexual farce of his pursuit of Bo Derek's character Jennifer: despite his desperate desire to cling to youth, be it his own or some perception of youthfulness embodied by her, he more or less literally cannot handle the fact that she is basically exactly what he wanted her to be. Derek's character is not only gorgeous, but willing – in fact, so willing that she would welcome anyone she was attracted to into her bed, albeit in so doing forget about George and his affection for her in the same way that she did her husband.
Also, it's certainly appealing that the movie doesn't seem to view her sexual liberation as a negative quality, except as an obstacle for George. Jennifer's rationale for being so open and comfortable with her body and her bed is reflective not only of a more balanced sense of gender empowerment but an ownership of her lifestyle and her choices that isn't just cavalier, or more colloquially, "slutty." That Derek's character is a prototypical fantasy girl doesn't diminish her dimensionality as a person within the context of the story or film as a whole. Additionally, the film as a whole seems more than willing to offer plenty of nudity, including from Ms. Derek, and Edwards manages to film it in a way that doesn't feel sleazy or prurient but actually kind of sexy, or at worst funny.
Meanwhile, the film offers one of the most complex and complimentary portrayals of a homosexual character in a mainstream Hollywood movie, not just for that era (the late '70s) but really for any era. This isn't due merely to Robert Webber's nuanced, naturalistic (and decidedly mince-free) performance, but the way Edwards writes the character, making him a real, substantive companion for George as well as a counterpart for his growing realization that he isn't cut out for the commitment-free hookups that seem to be a part of youth culture. Towards the end of the film, he confesses he won't have his departed (much younger) boyfriend back, and there's a certain kind of tragedy to the moment, not because he's single, but because he knows that he's not capable of keeping up with the perceived freedoms of being a young person, out and exploring himself without hang-ups or judgment.
What Doesn't Work: Unfortunately, most of what happens in the film, which might have been the template for Roger Ebert's "idiot plot device." The premise itself – a man going through a midlife crisis pursues a beautiful woman in order to try and reclaim his youth – is sound enough, but it essentially produces an unlikeable protagonist from the get-go, since he's jeopardizing a comfortable, successful life, not to mention stable, rewarding relationships in exchange for the fleeting rewards of a tryst with a gorgeous but decidedly more superficial person. Mind you, that doesn't mean the movie doesn't work, or make it bad, but it does create an uphill battle for the filmmakers to make their main character a sympathetic figure who we want to see succeed - especially when he's a clumsy, often obnoxious alcoholic desperate to cheat on his girlfriend.
In terms of its idiocy, great stretches of the film – and more specifically, conflicts that are ripe with drama – are reduced to physical comedy, and in particular a slapsticky, exaggerated kind of action that undermines the deeper ramifications of the subject matter. On not one or two but at least three different occasions, George and his girlfriend Sam, played by Julie Andrews, are unable to reconcile with one another only because they can't get in touch with one another on the phone; they're either both calling each other at the exact same time, or he's suffering from some fairly horrible accident that keeps him from either answering or speaking on the phone. (For example, he gets a multi-tooth root canal that renders him speechless, so not only doesn't Sam recognize him, but she thinks he's a maniac and calls the police on him.) It's entirely possible that subsequent decades of films that borrowed or duplicated this storytelling technique diminished my patience for a classic "comedy of errors," but it seems lazy for this to be the only/ main reason the two them can't work out their problems.
Ultimately, I think its biggest problem, at least outwardly, is that it is eager to forgive awful behavior by shrouding it in the hyperbole of slapstick and comedy. No matter how "universal" is the idea of a midlife crisis, how "understandable" is the concept of trying to regain one's youth, George is a pretty terrible human being in this film, at least when he isn't being described by his longtime gay best friend. It's dismissable that he (sometimes literally) stumbles through some parts of his intended reconciliation with Sam, but at one point he literally goes to an orgy, and only flees when he realizes that he's been caught by her. And then later, after he has subjected himself to various humiliations in the name of discovering the whereabouts of Jennifer, he simply flies to Mexico by himself to get himself together, by which I mean drink himself absolutely silly and then proceed to try and hook up with another resortgoer (and only not follow through because he can't get it up.)
What's The Verdict: Despite my many objections to the characterization and behavior of the main character of this film, Blake Edwards' '10' holds up in an important way that the filmmaker may or may not have intended: namely, to provide a mirror for baby boomers who are eager to participate in youth culture but cannot fully embrace or accept that culture's values. Although the film ends happily, the real payoff to the story is when George realizes not that the promise of Jennifer's carnality is false, but that it's absolutely real, and he's unable to deal with the actual reality of that carnality. In other words, the film is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a more conventional romantic comedy, and while the wrapping deserves a 2 or 3, you really have to dig deep to find the qualities that make '10' live up to its name.