Pakula's Consent: Some Thoughts on "Consenting Adults"




SPOILERS AHEAD

Re-cap. Struggling in a flailing marriage and a stultified yuppie existence, Richard and Priscilla Parker (Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), become drawn into the lives of their new neighbours, Eddy and Kay Otis (Kevin Spacey and Rebecca Miller). Eddy, correctly intuiting Richard’s attraction to Kay, and stating his own attraction to Priscilla, suggests the men switch marital beds late one night. Richard, initially resistant, soon relents…  

Title. Consenting Adults (1992) misleads its audience as abruptly as debauched financial adviser Eddy misleads our “everyman”. The film's plotting follows the narrative ploy of Psycho (1960): the shock murder, occurring near the film's midway point, that immediately changes the game. The difference is that where Psycho finally, spectacularly satisfied its title with such an event, the murder - and subsequently revealed elaborate insurance scam - in Consenting Adults derails all the sexual and interpersonal complexities its title seemingly suggested. This is not necessarily a bad thing - it's an interesting experiment to say the least - but it risks viewer revolt. The film's mixed reception suggested as much. If the film had been titled, say, We Have New Neighbours, a title that similarly can carry portent but is more supportive of the other directions the film takes, it might have received marginally better notices, a greater preparedness from critics and audiences to go along for the ride. But Consenting Adults was filling a niche - the two word-titled "middle-class paranoia" psychosexual thriller, an especially popular sub-genre in the late Eighties /early Nineties.

Focus. Even with another title, issues with suspension of disbelief would remain, as would contentions that Alan J. Pakula, who typically directed in a lower key, was adhering to some of the more feverish tenets of the sub-genre. Furthermore, disappointment was voiced that Pakula, the social fabulist, seemed well subsumed, on this occasion, by Pakula, the stylist. While the scamming and the yuppie angst certainly carried contemporary social currents, the bells and whistles of Eddy Otis' conspiracies, and Richard Parkers' struggles in extricating himself from them, ultimately drives all.

Presumptions. Promotional materials for Consenting Adults featured the taglines "Thou Shall Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife" and "From the director of Presumed Innocent". The former continues the deception of what the film will be; it suggests punishment (generated through guilt? Shame? Stigma? Retribution?) for one's sexual sins, but essentially the film is about being spectacularly duped. Arguably the latter tagline supports the deception as well. With Presumed Innocent (1990), Pakula's stock was back up, after the triple "failures" of Dream Lover (1986), Orphans (1987) and See You in The Morning (1989), all commendable films, except at the bottom line. Pakula would have been an attractive proposition for the film's studio, Hollywood Pictures; well-regarded and well-versed (during the Seventies, and then with Presumed Innocent) in dark excursions into sexuality, suspense and conspiracy - and well-remunerating studios in the process. Pakula, for his part, appeared intrigued that Consenting Adults, in its first passages, would possess themes very similar to those of Presumed Innocent. By its midpoint, though, the audience would find themselves in a Nineties updating of Hitchcock's 1951 classic, Strangers on a Train. It was a good opportunity to shake up expectations.

Spacey.  It is not simply the fall-out from an illicit "criss cross" set up that renders Consenting Adults strongly reminiscent of Strangers. Spacey's Eddy Otis is a similar beast to Robert Walker's celebrated schemer, which is to say, ingratiating and persistent. Pakula reportedly fought for Kevin Spacey's involvement - recognition of Spacey was growing, but he was not yet a box-office draw - and Spacey served Pakula's Hitchcockian ambitions well. Eddy is borne of a distinctly theatrical mould. But more intriguingly, he also exists within the broader Pakulian universe: Eddy could strike up a fine rapport with Charles Durning and Frances Sternhagen's overbearingly presumptuous brother and sister-in-law in Pakula's 1979 divorcing couples comedy, Starting Over.

Games. Pakula noted that a central theme of Consenting Adults concerns the emptiness of the yuppie lifestyle, a striving so all-consuming that it leaves people emotionally and intellectually undernourished, their mammalian instincts towards danger blunted, and the machinations of a fairly obvious charlatan like Eddy duly missed. Eddy scolds Richard for his avoidance of risk (financially, but of course also sexually) and the concomitant deflation of his spirit. Priscilla, emboldened by evidence of the rewards that Eddy's risk-taking reaps, soon joins the chorus. 
These events lead us steadily towards the film's show stopping sequence: the men switching marital beds in the early hours of the morning. The burdens of yuppiedom may nullify thought, instinct and judgement; nonetheless, how can Richard assume that Kay, even in a midnight drowse, would not recognise a different body drawing up against her, different hands caressing her? (Need I extrapolate further?) 
The critical knives sharpened. And yet there’s a crucial detail, and really a very interesting one, that is often played down in critical conjecture: Eddy has planted another seed in Richard's mind (with the assistance, however reluctantly, of Kay), that the women subconsciously want this to happen. Richard clearly takes stock in Eddy's presentation of worldly knowledge. As we find after Richard has been framed for Kay's murder, he believes that Priscilla had also been implicitly pushing him towards the night of wife-swapping, to seemingly prove his risk-taking masculinity; that he, like Eddy, is also a man "in the game". It's a strong reveal of Richard's unspoken assumptions of his wife, as well as a firm indication of the extent to which his frustrations with the banality of his work and his very existence - with Eddy's orchestrated goading escalating it all - have infiltrated his perceptions.

Nightmare. The second half almost exclusively becomes Richard’s quest to reveal the criminal machinations and clear his name. This is his nightmare – and it firmly becomes the film's propulsion. That Kline is an eminently watchable actor, and makes a very engaging “everyman” (like he did in the previous year’s Grand Canyon) plays to the film’s strength. By contrast, while the film’s first half suggested character trajectories for Priscilla and Kay, in the second half they are practically shrouds. They are there for Richard to (re)discover and confront. What we discover of their motivations is only a) what Richard directly discovers in his strained contact with them, or b) through what other characters tell Richard. They are not given substantial individual moments of explanation (in contrast, say, to Kim Novak's flashback and voiceover letter-writing in 1958’s Vertigo). It is fair that one could feel irritated by the lack of explication, but such a creative decision stays true to the maxim: the second half is one man’s nightmare, where the people he (and we) knew in his life suddenly exit the picture and seem strangers to us when we see them next.

Style. Overall, Consenting Adults is heady, melodramatic material. Given that Pakula's impulses typically veer toward something opposite, a simmering broodiness, it seems legitimate to ruminate on his appropriateness for the job. But Pakula's impulses are also what makes the film interesting, and, as evidenced by The Parallax View (1974) in particular, Pakula is an excellent stylist; here, he takes the sordid details and realises them cinematically with seemingly incongruous slow, steady camera pans and dollies. For a commercial pic, the style is dangerously experimental. And yet it plays perfectly with the many dawning realisations that occur throughout the film. (Think of the camera dollying backwards as Richard realises the true intent of Eddy’s conspiracy.) And the slow pans become a game in themselves, always leaving us wondering what images we will settle upon. 

Shock. Pakula still knows how to deliver a shock, back like he did in the Seventies. There’s careful preliminary work that goes into these. To wit, in the pre-credits scene, we view Richard's demeaning struggles and reduced ambitions as a composer, where even a television jingle is the source of great angst. (Examples of the flatness and quiet frustration afflicting the Parkers thus commences.) A reel or so in, though, and with Eddy starting to spark Richard's flagging spirit, we return to another day at the recording studio, but this time with an easier-going Richard bringing the desired verve to the jingle. Then, with the jingle still playing triumphantly on the soundtrack, we observe Richard and Priscilla driving out of their work carpark, noticeably more relaxed and engaged than we've seen them thus far ... and then Eddy steps out in front of their car. Pakula chooses the Parkers moment of heady, regained confidence to throw a beautifully orchestrated shock our way.

Uzi. The film's climactic scenes depict Richard infiltrating Eddy's home, semi-commando style, and Eddy stalking Richard with an Uzi. The Uzi would seem over-the-top .... if anyone but Eddy was holding it. (There's a nice suggestion that Eddy is as absurdly paranoid about the retribution of the scammed as he is ultra-confident and ambitious in his scamming.) The florid details of the finale, like so much of the film, seem of a piece with Strangers on a Train. While it is, in conception, a fairly generic confrontation, Pakula freshens the details with the sinister slow pans, as well as the extreme close ups of Spacey and the Uzi. And it's an appropriate detail for another of his terrorised women to deliver the knockout blow. 

Coda. With Eddy vanquished, Richard and Priscilla comforting one another, and the soothing strains of Pakula's regular composer, Michael Small, reassuring us all is well, we cut to the grid lock that greeted us in the film's opening. Richard and Priscilla have resumed the work commute; but this time, they listen to the radio commentator announcing Richard's acquittal. We watch them drive into their new neighbourhood, only to be greeted by removalists next door and a new neighbour all-too-eager to engage in conversation - and get the measure of them. Richard and Kay exchange but a look that tells us their past experiences will wisely inform their new. Happier times  - and more containable neighbourly relationships - seemingly ahead. Then, fade out, with a popular singer of the time crooning about keeping one's eyes wide open and not taking things (and people) for granted. All is well.
Well, except that the last bit in the new neighbourhood, with the end credits song, is a figment of my imagination. It didn't happen, I'm happy to say. It could have. We could have gone with the reassuring coda; after all, "the monster" of Consenting Adults is dead. (Oh yes, Richard transgressed, but "the monster" was tempting him.) Like with 1987's social phenomenon, Fatal Attraction, it appears that the filmmakers adhere to the broad strokes of a conclusion, while stealing the odd ambivalent shot for themselves. With the final shot of Fatal Attraction, set in the wake of the femme fatale's destruction, the cheating husband and his loyal wife embrace, and as they exit screen right the camera zooms in on a happy photo of the  family. And the credits roll. It's a remarkably effective coda, generating genuine pathos in its irony. The family will forever struggle. Forever, in fact, does not seem the operative word. They will struggle before they disassemble.
Consenting Adults offers a nice companion piece: we are given a reprise of the film's musical string motif - evoking a peaceful, desirous slice of Americana – but the Parkers, rather than taking another drive through a family-bustling, sun-bathed neighbourhood, instead approach their new house, cleverly revealed by an aerial shot to be situated in the middle of nowhere. There's not another house in sight. It's a grandiose joke, and it undercuts "happily ever after" and "all is resolved" in one long sweeping shot. In fact, it's a shared joke with any audience member who has contemplated the inevitable end-point of paranoid thrillers, and it is perhaps the best self-reflexive moment the sub-genre offers. Killing the external threat will not neutralise the trauma and all that follows in its wake. And the Parkers, in their consequent distrust, have underestimated their own social needs. While The Parallax View has a far less conventional resolution, Consenting Adults shares with it a trenchant coda.

Divisions. Ebert liked it; Maslin didn’t; the reviewers at Washington Post were divided. All for the reasons stated, or alluded to, above. In the shadow of such contention, the overall consensus is that Consenting Adults is a lesser work in Pakula’s oeuvre. You can go with the twist, or reject it. You can go with the seemingly abrupt re-focus, or reject it. You can find yourself wishing the women were offered the opportunity to explain themselves, or feel sufficiently swept up in the new world Richard finds himself. You can be struck with disappointment that Pakula delved into this sub-genre, or feel intrigued by his take on it. Personally, I enjoy the film whenever I re-visit it. It's certainly Hitchcock through the lens of Pakula, and it epitomises an odd but welcome little category called "the hypnotic potboiler". Its poor notices are understandable. But so, indeed, are the good.

Fable. Second thoughts, though, perhaps Consenting Adults is a social fable: beware the charlatan – the smoothie – for his ambitions, and his low view of your integral worth, are much larger than you give him (dis)credit for.

Published 16 July 2016