The Morning After is an awkward combination of thriller and adult drama. As a thriller, with Paul Chihara’s enthusiastic and bombastic score, it’s frequently annoying. Jane Fonda can scrub a crime scene of every thread of evidence, but the simple things–like dropping a succeeding lie or leaving all her personal belongings for the police to find–escape her. Lumet’s direction, which makes full use of the frame in a somewhat unique three dimensional manner (Fonda hides on the right, out of sight from the pursuer on the left or hiding behind truck on the lower right, unseen by the pursuers above her), is competent while unsuccessful. It can’t surmount the script’s absurdities or that awful music.
There’s also the matter of the frequent extreme long shots, featuring Fonda walking from one side of the frame to the other, usually in front of a building. Those I can’t even begin to understand.
The adult drama angle of the film, alcoholic failed starlet Fonda finds the hint of a human connection with friendly bigot (he’s friendly in his bigotry) Jeff Bridges, works considerably better. Lumet’s direction of those scenes, when they aren’t doubling for suspense, is quite good and rather effective. I spent a lot of The Morning After marveling at Fonda’s ability to overcome the material. She and Bridges have a decent chemistry, but her drunk scenes are bleak and wonderful. One of the few things the script gets right is its detail to her (drinking-related) behaviors and the logic she operates under.
The script’s major conceptual problem (besides the wrong-headed–it’s got that L.A. corruption angle too–cobbling of two incompatible ideas) has to do with the script’s ambitions. The Morning After is practically a concept film–the opening titles only credit three actors, Fonda, Bridges and Raul Julia, and they aren’t kidding. It’s practically a stage play. It might even work better as a stage play, as the constraints would make it more interesting. But as a thriller, the constraints just make it weird. While the cops are after Fonda and she’s worried she’s a killer or there’s a killer after her, she takes the time to put on make-up and flirt with Bridges. The movie wastes about eleven minutes on this scene, which is only there for developing that adult drama aspect.
Another big problem is understanding what Fonda’s doing. The viewer can’t understand what she’s thinking because he or she is supposed to be considering the possibility Fonda killed someone, but it frequently gets to the point where her actions are baffling. Fonda’s character is a clumsy drunk; it’s always clear when she’s been drinking. So her relatively sober actions tend to make less sense than her drunk ones. A strange dichotomy.
But it’s worth watching for Fonda’s performance, even if Bridges is just along for the ride and Julia can’t make his poorly written character work. Fonda gets through all the absurdity, making it all palatable, and comes out great at the–similarly goofy–ending.