Friday February 21, 1997
Since their initial, countercultural collaboration--writing The Monkees' movie "Head"--Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson have certainly gone down different paths. But their occasional associations have composed a mini-ouevre all its own: "Five Easy Pieces" with its complex characterizations; "The King of Marvin Gardens" with its contrarian casting; "The Postman Always Rings Twice," with its deglamorized take on murder and adultery.
Now, with "Blood & Wine"--which Rafelson has declared the last in a trilogy that includes "Five Easy Pieces" and "Marvin Gardens"--they've made another film that works out of stylistic assumptions and defied expectations. A caper-romance-domestic drama-film noir with casual political overtones, "Blood & Wine" is set up the way it ought to be (not that there are any precedents), but how it unfolds, and how its characters unravel, is an always-different story.
Consider, just for starters, Alex Gates (Nicholson), a financially and, of course, morally bankrupt wine dealer who first appears semi-smirking from behind a morning paper (Rafelson's "star intros" are close to hilarious). He has little to smirk about.
Out of money, out of time, his marriage to wife Suzanne (Judy Davis) is on the rocks, his relationship with stepson Jason (Stephen Dorff) is a prickly mess and he's about to rob a client of a million-dollar diamond necklace. Worse, he's having a conspicuously foolhardy affair with the conspicuously overripe and clearly dangerous Gabrielle (Jennifer Lopez). Nicholson, perhaps for the first time in his career, is playing a character for whom we feel pity.
Rafelson has said that he met newcomer Lopez ("Money Train," "Jack" and the upcoming "Selena") six times before casting her. "The third time, I noticed she had a good body." Right. And Nicholson was cast for his hairline. Let's just say that Lopez, high-heeled and high-maintenance, simmers volcanically while providing the catalyst for the Alex-Jason meltdown and proving that movie bad girls, sometimes, are simply bad.
She's not, however, the most fascinating thing about "Blood & Wine." That prize goes to the venomous relationship between Alex and his larcenous confederate Victor Spansky (Michael Caine), a safecracker with advanced emphysema and a lethally short fuse. Rafelson makes the mistake at several points of cutting back and forth between Jason and Gabrielle, waxing dreamy, and Alex and Victor, malevolently scheming and avoiding each other's horns. In terms of sheer acting, it's simply no contest.
Amid the introspective evil, plans gone awry and the tug-of-war over the necklace--which takes on the symbolic importance of Steinbeck's "Pearl"--is the marvelous Davis. She is directed to better effect by Rafelson than by Clint Eastwood in "Absolute Power" but is still underutilized. At the same time, she makes a strong impression as the wronged wife--she cold-cocks Alex at one point, in a statement of feminist ferocity and cinematic mischief--while exuding a certain unmotherly attraction for/to Jason.
But "Blood & Wine" is a deeply eroticized movie, almost to the point of distraction: Alex and Gabrielle, Gabrielle and Jason, Gabrielle and her wardrobe; Alex and Suzanne; Jason and his mother--even Alex and Victor. There's a scene in which the two thieves struggle, with Nicholson straddling Caine like a confused bull in a pasture for the fragile and unelastic.
None of this is serious, of course, just Rafelson making merry among the corrupt and unredeemable, whom he endows with a complexity that's probably undeserved, but occasionally very compelling indeed.
Blood & Wine, 1997. R for violence and language. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release of A Recorded Picture Company film. Director Bob Rafelson. Producer Jeremy Thomas. Executive producers Chris Autry, Bernie Williams. Co-producers Hercules Bellville, Noah Golden. Screenplay Nick Villiers, Alison Cross. Photography Newton Thomas Sigel. Production designer Richard Sylbert. Editor Steven Cohen. Music Michal Lorenc. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Jack Nicholson as Alex Gates. Stephen Dorff as Jason. Jennifer Lopez as Gabrielle. Judy Davis as Suzanne Gates. Michael Caine as Victor Spansky.