Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a film with a reputation that doesn’t even begin to match the quality of the picture. Which is not to say it’s not a well-remembered film—quite the contrary. But these days it’s mostly regarded as a giggly cultural artifact, a nudging satire of the sexual revolution. It’s a better movie than that—smarter, deeper, trickier—and its real themes (honesty, monogamy, and the dangers of fancying ourselves more sophisticated than we are) are timeless.
Director Paul Mazursky (who wrote the script with Larry Tucker) uses his opening section to set up, and then push past, the easy punchlines of touchy-feely encounter culture. The lazy, pat move would have been to merely point and laugh, but he takes the experience of Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) at that weekend retreat and understands what it meant to them—and then goes for the laugh. Mazursky and Tucker (and their deft cast) get that the joke isn’t in the culture (which is taken seriously), but in the reactions of everyone else when the buzzwords and attitudes of that culture are taken out of that cocoon. When Ted (Elliot Gould) tells them that he thinks it’s all bullshit, Bob smiles, with a twinkle in his eye, and says, “That’s gorgeous, man, the truth is really beautiful.”
Culp isn’t winking at us; he plays the line straight. And he and Wood give his biggest scene, when he confesses a recent infidelity, the respect of honest playing—which makes the verbal gymnastics they wrap themselves up in exponentially funnier. Our protagonists’ newly reupholstered views on fidelity must be honored, so the scene is stood on its head; Carol not only lets him off the hook, but is elated. “I feel that you’re sharing something very personal!” she tells him, wide-eyed. “I feel very moved that you trust me!” And so Bob finds himself frustrated that she won’t share the guilt that he’s obligated to feel.
There’s similar multi-leveled intelligence happening in Alice (Dyan Cannon) and Ted’s reaction to Bob and Carol’s new “open” marriage; most movies (particularly these days) would find one response and hammer it, but the extended dialogue scene between this very different duo quickly becomes a brilliant (and painfully truthful) realization of the twists, turns, and double-backs of a marital argument, in which every question is loaded and every answer leads to another question.
It all leads to the film’s most famous sequence, in which the quartet finds themselves in Vegas, and the drinks start to flow, and Ted makes a startling confession, and suddenly Alice is game for, as she proclaims, “Orgy! Orgy! Orgy!” This is a delicate sequence—one sniggering gesture, one easy laugh, and the whole damn thing falls apart. And that’s why the skill with which Mazursky, Tucker, and their cast achieve this balancing act is so goddamned thrilling. Every word is just right, perfectly chosen yet seemingly spontaneous, and the laugh lines (“First we’ll have an orgy, then we’ll go see Tony Bennett”) are off-the-cuff enough to keep the scene’s reality intact. And it’s thrilling because Mazursky seems to back himself into a corner—how can they go through with this, but how can the filmmakers get away with it—and then breezes right out of the movie. Brilliant, truthful, and piercingly funny, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is exactly of its moment, yet decades ahead of its time.