The Accidental Tourist
Reviewed in April 2004
Director: Lawrence Kasdan. Cast: William Hurt, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner, Amy Wright, Bill Pullman, David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley, Jr. Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan and Frank Galati (based on the novel by Anne Tyler).

Photo © 1988 Warner Bros. Pictures
Anyone who finds Lawrence Kasdan's The Accidental Tourist a little somnolent has got a point. William Hurt, as so often, acts with his forehead, and he's even more internalized here than in most of his roles. No one in the cast really rises above a whisper, even in the throes of grief or the springtime of a new crush, and the pacing of the film isn't trying to get anywhere fast.

Still, the unrushed serenity and tonal restraint of The Accidental Tourist is also its saving grace and by far its most interesting quality: it's one of those movies you enjoyed long ago and discover, against expectations, that it hasn't really lost much years later. The source text is Anne Tyler's novel about Macon Leary (Hurt), a writer whose stock in trade is a series of travelogues for reluctant business travelers who want a Big Mac, a minimum of hassle, and a warm envelope of domestic routine no matter where they're forced to peregrinate. The analogy to Macon's own psychology—he's laconic and almost scarily closed-off, keeping a tight lid on emotion even after his son is killed in a robbery—is almost painfully literalist, and it's more embarrassing off the page than on. Kasdan, along with co-writer Frank Galati (the scribe behind the Grapes of Wrath stage adaptation), make a mistake of preserving some of Tyler's most redundant passages, and the script saddles poor Kathleen Turner, who's already a little stiff in the role of Macon's wife Sarah, with too much armchair philosophizing. It's klutzy and a little lazy to start your movie with a scene of one character telling another (plus the audience) what he's really, really like. It's worse that a sequence five minutes into the movie only confirms things we've inferred in less than three.

By the same token, though, the over-attention given to Macon's evident inhibitions offers a good cover to the equally plain but somehow less obvious dimension of his chosen career: for a guy who loves the familiar, he sure seeks it out in some unlikely places. Only an introvert would write or read Macon's books, but so too, only a closeted people-person, someone peeping over the wall of his own taciturnity, would make a career of traveling to all these places that he purports not to enjoy. Or maybe he's just trying to avoid his wife. Either way, though The Accidental Tourist prompts us to expect a story of how some live-wire outsider will spark Macon's life, it turns out to be more of a story of Macon looking for love, seeking a connection, even when it seems like he's avoiding one. Under these conditions, it's quietly believable that Macon would be drawn to Muriel Pritchett, the dog-trainer played by Geena Davis in her Oscar-winning role. Muriel is like a pure distillation of what screenwriters mean by the word "quirky": she wears frilly little angle-length socks with her scarlet pumps, wears too much makeup and too many tiger-stripes, and she believes she can communicate with dogs through a clucking language of her own devising.

Muriel would be a sideshow attraction in a lot of movies. In almost any other environment, she'd be too oddball even as the "free spirit" who liberates Ben Stiller or Luke Wilson or whoever from his narrow paradigms of demure femininity. More likely, she'd be the blind date from Mars who telegraphs Ben's or Luke's need to find a normal person who's still fun. A screwball director like Howard Hawks might have used Muriel as the dynamite for a firecracking romantic farce; she's sort of a déclassée version of Katharine Hepburn's pet-loving dingbat in Bringing Up Baby, and given Hawks' trademark interest in the collisions of career and desire, The Accidental Tourist could have been a huge, rollicking hit for him and, say, Irene Dunne about fifty years before it was actually written. Tyler has even provided the kind of eccentric second-tier characters that were prerequisites of a Hawks or a Cukor comedy—Macon's three siblings still live together, well into middle-age, and they alphabetize the contents of their pantry—though, in Kasdan's hands, even the scenes in this absent-minded household are pretty muffled.

One might harbor anachronistic dreams while watching The Accidental Tourist, wishing it were the movie that filmmakers of another era might have made of it. Still, to my mind, The Accidental Tourist finds the right cadence and register not just for its plot but for the moment in which it is made. Partial evidence for my hunch that another approach wouldn't have worked is that Kasdan's one attempt at a comic set-piece, involving a dog, a skateboard, and a laundry basket, is almost stultifyingly lame, because it's totally out of character for Macon and for the movie. After all, the precipitating event of this film is the death of a child—it's the reason Sarah leaves Macon, which is the reason he meets Muriel—and the whole movie makes clear that Macon's grief isn't really worked through even as his romantic life is rejuvenated. A measure of comic sobriety is hardly out of place here. Cinematographer John Bailey, who has brought a vivid sense of color to movies as different as In the Line of Fire and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, works almost totally in mute greys and cornflower blues for this picture. Even when Geena Davis pops up in her wacky ensembles, Bailey's lighting concepts wisely tone them down, rather than keying up the rest of the movie to complement her. All of the actors look just fine, and yet the shots don't work overtime doing favors for them: Turner is typically lovely but a little haggard, and no one's trying to make William Hurt look any less pale than he is. (When Macon walks to the bathroom sink in the mornings, Hurt looks like he's trying to push his gut out a little.) Even John Williams, who for once writes the music that the film needs rather than the music he'd like to hear, works delicately in minor keys, and the repeated motifs gently emphasize that while certain things change for these characters over the course of the plot, others do not. The filmmaking crew even survives the double-jeopardy test of hewing to their tonal convictions even when the story abandons Baltimore and takes them all to Paris. The colors all remain the same, and I don't even remember spotting the Eiffel Tower or a baguette sticking out of a grocery sack anywhere.

All of this leads to a remarkably unpretentious and, to use an unfashionable term, a realistic connection to the story and its people. Paris is just another place the movie ventures, which is just as Macon likes it. Paris is also the scene for his true change of heart, which is another part of what he wants, amid all his contradictions, and it's a huge part of what we want, less ambivalently. Everyone winds up happy, without the movie betraying the central concepts. When Muriel eventually wins us over, as Davis' bright performance certainly allows her to do, the credit can go to the character and the actress, not to the cheap tricks of flattering photography or jerry-rigged designs. Hurt's own modulated performance is equally responsible for the happiness of the ending. We are glad for Macon because we can see a new gladness in Hurt's face, a subtle but unmistakable alteration from his other close-ups in the picture. Subtle victories like this are harder-fought on film than bigger ones, because of the amount of potentially alienating restraint required along the way to make them pay off. The dim but effective signals of Macon's climactic gladness offer a sure sign that Hurt has managed the nifty feat of keeping us at bay through the film without him simply shutting us out, and without our summarily losing interest. It is lovely to enjoy a romantic conclusion to a tale like this without being prodded into outright euphoria. Love stories at the movies often run on the notion that when you find the right person, the rest of life just falls away, and when the movie is The Lady Eve or Moulin Rouge!, the pleasure is more than infectious. But The Accidental Tourist very neatly manages to show us a relationship that springs to life between two people whose thoughts still, to some degree, lie elsewhere. Macon still has a son to mourn and Muriel has one to raise, and the film is quite clear that the one does not replace the other, at least not in a glib way.

Macon and Muriel may or may not make it, and if they don't, they will both remember this moment of the connection fondly. It's a priceless interlude within lives that have already paid highish prices, but the movie doesn't belabor the characters' sadness any more than their happiness. There simply isn't a grand gesture in the film, so it's easy to feel that The Accidental Tourist is doing something wrong, if you're expecting It Happened One Night. Yes, it was odd for the New York Film Critics to have voted it their Best Picture citation in a year of Bull Durham, Dead Ringers, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But let's leave aside the heavy-hitter awards and the enormous expectations. This is a warm movie told in the temperature of almost-recognizable life. It's a believable love story, joked up a bit but not too much, and it puts the high gloss and burnished complacency of so many adaptations of beloved novels to shame. In fact, it's the kind of movie Lasse Hallström might have made before he became Lasse "Miramax" Hallström (or, maybe, somewhere between where he started and where he wound up), and that's a good thing. In one memorable scene, Macon's sister Rose grossly undercooks a Thanksgiving turkey, and her suitor, Julian, eats it. He doesn't get ill, he doesn't vomit. There's no punch line at all, because the joke is already there: it's the kind of weird, awkward situation we sometimes put each other in, or that we put ourselves in. That's all the humor that the moment wants or needs, and so the scene is freed to produce something honest, a new intimacy. "He ate my turkey," Rose murmurs. She understands, quietly but giddily, what Julian was saying by eating it—that he loves her. The Accidental Tourist is quiet, and a little zany, but most of all, it understands its characters, and it understands its audience. Cute dog, too. B


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actress: Geena Davis
Best Adapted Screenplay: Frank Galati & Lawrence Kasdan
Best Original Score: John Williams

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Original Score: John Williams

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Picture

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