It's nearly impossible to put together a picture about ennui without dramatically succumbing to it in a big way. Michael Tolkin, talent that he is, isn't yet the movie maker to meet the feat.
"The New Age," his second feature as a director, is an audacious attempt at taking a snapshot of a whole culture's moral torpor--that is, L.A.'s--in the midst of an overweening spiritual narcissism. In this it's even fleetingly successful, yet drags on so long past its point you feel as if you've missed two or three harmonic convergences.
The title's a joke, of sorts, of course. Tolkin's movie is pointedly ambivalent on matters spiritual, opening and closing with the voices of friendly gurus, with various drumming circles and life-passage ceremonies nonjudgmentally visited in-between. In these scenes he's not really spoofing or endorsing.
But the unhappily marrieds at the movie's center--conspicuous consumers Peter Weller and Judy Davis--don't allow all this fashionable etherealism to infringe much past the periphery of their lives, where it's a comfortable, curious accouterment to their materialism. The implicit gag is that when they flirt with New Age practices, they're still just shopping.
But the ether is about the only place their credit might still be good. In a secular sense, the "new age" represents downward mobility for the designer set, a riff on the pragmatic post-Reagan years.
In the opening scenes, Davis sees her ad agency's primary account (a failing bank, of course) fall through on the same day Weller quits his agent job, precipitating a fast decline that threatens their Hollywood hillside way of life. Vaguely terrified, they react to their dwindling resources by throwing a lavish party, separating, embarking on separate but equal affairs (although he has a good head-start on her) in the same home, and selling the Ruschas.
The picture reaches a good comic-nightmarish peak in the middle section, when Davis and Weller, dumb with desperation, resolve to use said Ruschas to fund an expensive clothing store they open together on Melrose. Not unlike the restaurant scenes in Mike Leigh's "Life Is Sweet," Tolkin smartly captures the dread in opening--and closing--a small business: the initial anxiety, the premature glee of the first sales, the torment of sidewalk browsers who won't come in, the ultimate terrible sinking feeling.
But by the time the boutique finally goes under, our couple's financial and psychic torment has just begun. Eventually, as they wallow in their decline and even negotiate mutual suicide, the film comes to seem uncomfortably like a drugless, upper-class "Sid and Nancy." But "Sid and Nancy's" downward spiral at least had an ending. Tolkin meanders toward and through at least three or four possible finishes, none very satisfactory--least of all the real one, which sells one principal short and provides the other partner what seems like an artificially arrived-at triumph.
Part of the problem might be that Tolkin is so fair-minded he wants to have it every possible way, sacrificing a point of view in the process. In his better, first feature, "The Rapture," this ambivalence worked brilliantly (if maddeningly, for most audiences): Fundamentalist Christianity was true after all, but mortals were courageous in rejecting its stern God, the movie seemed to posit, quite an audacious bit of juggling.
"The New Age" does offer the chance to see one of our best actresses, Davis, do another funny, pathetic, lip-biting malcontent, although Weller gets woodenly stuck with no arc to follow, having to act the caddish foil to his wife's minor enlightenments. The smaller roles include some varyingly successful but fun stunt castings, including Adam West as the crude, rich playboy dad who taught Weller his bad pickup lines ("How are your morals tonight?"), performance artist Rachel Rosenthal (!) as one of Davis' chosen avatars, and Samuel L. Jackson as the phone-sales huckster Weller picks as his guru.
But as the under-edited pacing flags, and Tolkin moves in more claustrophobically on his couple, you may feel as if you're trapped at a marathon two-person Debtors Anonymous meeting--which is to say, unforgiving. Robert Altman, who adapted Tolkin's "The Player," might have had a field day elaborating on the L.A. ensemble aspects of this script. But Tolkin is too tightly focused on two characters--and consequently, an audience--in search of an exit. After all is moped and done, "The New Age" gets old before its time.
* MPAA-rated R, for nudity, sexual situations and language. Times guidelines: brief male and female nudity, frank talk about sexual mores, an S&M; party scene. 'The New Age'
Peter Weller: Peter Witner
Judy Davis: Katherine Witner
Adam West: Jeff Witner
Patrick Bachau: Jean Levy
Rachel Rosenthal: Sarah Friedberg
Samuel L. Jackson: Dale Deveaux
A Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films presentation of an Ixtlan/Addis-Wechsler production, released by Warner Bros. Director-writer Michael Tolkin. Producers Nick Wechsler, Keith Addis. Executive producers Oliver Stone, Arnon Milchan. Cinematography John J. Campbell. Editor Suzanne Fenn. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. 1 hour, 52 minutes.
* In general release in Southern California.