***½/**** Image B+ Sound B-
starring George Segal, Eva Marie Saint, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn
screenplay by Don Devlin, based on a novel by J.M. Ryan
directed by Irvin Kershner
by Bill Chambers The top ten winners in TOTAL FILM's recent poll on the cinema's greatest "bastards" (that would be in front of the camera, not behind it) were a fairly stock bunch: old faithfuls like The Sweet Smell of Success' JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and Get Carter's Carter (Michael Caine)--who placed first--joined such choices that pander to currency while feigning esoterica as Internal Affairs' Dennis Peck (Richard Gere) and As Good As It Gets' Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson). But you will find few bigger bastards than the overlooked protagonist of Irvin Kershner's Loving, Brooks Wilson (George Segal), a lousy husband and father who has to be among the most self-absorbed suburbanites ever to despoil the screen. In our introduction to him, he decides to have a smoke instead of watching his daughter perform in the school Christmas pageant--an event for which he was made late by a fight with his mistress. One of them, anyway.
Brooks is a graphic designer for an advertising firm so small they have an outhouse in the middle of the office. He's hoping to score the coveted "Lepridon" account (whose name probably sounds folkloric on purpose to evoke an elusive pot of gold), and the movie unfolds as he waits for the answer, giving us Brooks, the sort of guy to use stress as an enabler for self-destructive behaviour, at his worst. While his wife Selma (Eva Marie Saint) optimistically plans for her family's future, Brooks carries on a couple of affairs, starts a brawl at the reputation-shaping Illustrator's Club, and arrogantly refuses to alter his artwork--a hybrid of Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer that today uncorks a flood of nostalgia for the backs of '70s periodicals--to suit the needs of his existing clientele. With a readiness to look foolish that undercuts his vanity and affected charm, Segal slithers into the skin of Brooks, an everyman the way your dad's smarmy co-workers are everymen, with ease. It is, come to think of it, not that difficult to see how a character so suited to an actor's métier could be neglected by list-makers, because it doesn't stand out from the film at that point.
Essentially The Ice Storm's most traceable influence after the novel on which it was based (both films share a train-platform sequence, a holiday setting, kids of accelerated maturity, a third-act shindig (where swinging seems inevitable, if not encouraged), and, of course, a philandering protagonist), Loving has real integrity embedded in its modest execution. Although not averse to montage (e.g., a chilling set-piece of parallel action towards the end of the picture that goes for the cheap but no less effective irony of marrying a children's record--"Mary Had a Little Lamb"--to illicit sex), Kershner generally eschews cutting techniques that would spur him to editorializing. If a close-up implies empathy, Kershner is careful to keep his distance from Brooks, though he allows him, almost entirely through camera angles, a small victory at the climactic soiree when Brooks challenges a fellow partygoer's pick-up spiel about Vermeer. (Any filmmaker who wouldn't revile a poseur ahead of a cad simply lacks artistic integrity.) Even Selma is usually included in tableaux of spectators blind to Brooks's infidelity, the better to prohibit victimhood from localizing itself. A rivetingly amoral film that leaves you with the judgments to pass, going so far as to roll credits mid-resolution, Loving is one of the great-unheralded classics of the Seventies.
Columbia TriStar presents Loving on DVD in a handsome though tightly-framed 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that ekes out an admirable amount of shadow detail from cinematographer Gordon Willis's typically aphotic images before devolving into a morass of black. The source print is free of debris and grain is not once overbearing. Flatter is the DD 2.0 mono soundtrack, but considering the film never played outside of New York City during its theatrical run, we'd be spoiled by an audio-visual presentation half this good. Trailers for For Pete's Sake, Fun with Dick and Jane, and Husbands and Wives round out the disc. Originally published: July 15, 2003.