Divorcing Paul Mazursky

New Hollywood auteur Paul Mazursky built a career on honest, daringly frank discussions of sex & romance, an ethos he established as early as his 1969 Free Love breakout drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Although that film’s exact themes of marital fidelity & intensive psychotherapy continued throughout his work as his career developed, he did adapt those preoccupations to the changing times as he aged. Our current Movie of the Month, Mazursky’s late 70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, for instance, depicts the fallout of the Free Love movement once lauded in his previous work, demonstrating how the breakdown of traditional marriage & sexual fidelity left many women socially & financially isolated in desperate need for feminist independence in their new sexually “liberated” world. Even that update could only remain fresh for so long, however. As America entered “The Age of Divorce” in the 1990s, the dissolution of the traditional marriage became more of a norm than an anomaly, and Paul Mazursky updated his own ruminations on the subject accordingly. Whereas the jump from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to An Unmarried Woman marked an advancement in Mazurksy’s maturity, though, the next chapter in this reflections on the evolving nature of divorce found him devolving in the opposite direction, both as an artist and as a thinker.

Admittedly, the declining allure of Mazursky’s fidelity dramas is somewhat attributable to the real-time aging of his characters. The turn-on sexual energy of performers like Natalie Wood & Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and even the confident adult sexuality of Jill Clayburgh ten years later in An Unmarried Woman only enhance those films’ themes of sexual & romantic experimentation. By the time Mazursky aged along with his characters into the 1990s, his work stopped being a relatably prurient rumination on a tantalizingly taboo topic and started to feel like walking in on your parents mid-coitus. In 1991’s Scenes from a Mall, Mazurksy updates his divorce-drama template with the middle-age players Woody Allen (a known sexual abuser) & Bette Midler (who is always fabulous, but still). Watching Natalie Wood talk her uptight hipster friends into an impromptu orgy or watching Jill Clayburgh dance alone in her underwear to Swan Lake is one thing. Watching Woody Allen go down on Bette Midler in a public movie theater is something else entirely. The only small consolation of this updated dynamic is in finally seeing Allen pursue a romantic partner who is somewhat age-appropriate a concession that’s only soured by watching Midler be degraded by sharing the screen with the monster and the gag-worthy visual of the two performers making out at length in remarkably thin underwear.

Lack of genuine sex appeal is only one small factor in the declining quality of Mazurksy’s divorce-drama ruminations, though it is a glaring one. The larger problem is the broadening of his humor and the erosion of his search for honesty. There’s an impressively subtle, delicate irony to the hipster parody of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that carries over into An Unmarried Woman (although broad caricatures like the sausage-gnawing caveman artist Charlie does test its boundaries). By the time Scenes from a Mall arrives, Mazursky is deploying all the subtlety & restraint of a feature-length All That sketch. Wood Allen’s midlife crisis in the film is signaled by a ponytail, a surfboard prop, and an affair with a 25-year-old. His main comic foil is a recurring mime gag performed by Bill Irwin. Cross-eyed nutshot reactions, a rapping Greek chorus, and Marusky’s own cameo as a Freudian pop psychologist are all distinctly broad & cheap in a way that feels below the director’s stature. That line of easy, goofball humor is also directly at odds with the literary stage play structure of the piece, as Scenes from a Mall is largely a Before Sunrise-style indie drama following a single, complex marital argument over the course of one afternoon, practically in real-time. The result is an incongruous tone one that demands you both take its romantic & sexual conflicts dead seriously but also bust a gut when the LA douchebag punches the mime for being a pest.

For what it’s worth, Mazursky does maintain a sliver of the honest, daring discussion of marital fidelity he established in previous works, even if Scenes from a Mall is an inappropriate vessel for the exercise. Staging one extensive, uncomfortable argument between a long-married couple in a Californian shopping mall is, at least in the abstract, a very promising conceit. Plenty of couples have marriage-ending meltdowns in parking lots, Wal-Marts, Bourbon St. dive bars, and other mundane public spaces that would make for similarly ironic backdrops. Midler’s initial reaction to hearing of Allen’s affair with a younger woman is also disarmingly believable. She starts in a place of quiet acceptance, then erupts into a seething, vengeful anger in a well-written, well-performed estimation of genuine heartbreak. As grotesque as watching Woody Allen go down on her in public feels, the overall back & forth between burning bridges to the past & sexually reconciling in wild passion does feel true to life & the messiness of the human heart. It also says a lot that the frank discussion of sexual infidelity that pushed buttons in Mazursky’s 1960s work was still taboo in the 1990s (not to mention the 2010s), at least enough to justify his continued needling at the topic. It’s just a shame all that honesty couldn’t have been funnelled into more appealing performers & a better considered tone.

It is unclear whether the broadening of the comedy or the compromising of the honesty were a choice of Mazursky’s or a sign of the changing times. It’s entirely possible that it was simply much easier to successfully pitch a broad comedy where mimes get punched & scrotes get kicked by the time that Scenes for a Mall arrived than it was to properly fund the serious, adult dramas of Mazursky’s distant New Hollywood past. Either way, Mazursky has much more rewarding divorce & fidelity dramas in earlier works like An Unmarried Woman, which sustain Scenes from a Mall‘s brief flashes of disarming honesty with confidence & bravery the latter work never fully musters. The only saving graces for Scenes from a Mall, then, are in its value as a novelty: documenting early-90s shopping mall excess; casting Woody Allen as a New Age Los Angeles twerp in tracksuits instead of a nebbish New York twerp in tweed; the aforementioned horrors of public cunnilingus; etc. Of course, those minor pleasures only fade the more unpleasant (if not outright traumatic) it’s becoming to watch Woody Allen onscreen, and Paul Mazursky’s marital fidelity oeuvre would ultimately be much better off if it could somehow divorce itself from Scenes from a Mall entirely.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our profile of its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff, and last week’s look at the director’s most iconic work, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

-Brandon Ledet

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