John and Mary (1969, Peter Yates)

Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow are John and Mary, respectively, and they’ve just woken up after spending the night together. They met at a singles bar. Is it going to be a one night stand or is it going to be something more?

Both come with some baggage, though of different varieties. Farrow’s last serious relationship was with a married politican (Michael Tolan); they spent a lot of their time hiding from his family. Hoffman, on the other hand, had a model ex-girlfriend (Sunny Griffin) who moved in with him and wasn’t a good cook. Seeing as Hoffman’s a neat freak and a control freak, it didn’t work out.

John Mortimer’s screenplay uses a handful of techniques to fill in the backstory. For a while, there’s narration from both Hoffman and Farrow–the film takes place over a day, with the narration mostly taking place in the morning–then there are flashbacks (featuring Tolan and Griffin) and daydreams. Director Yates plays with how the flashbacks and daydreams relate to the present action–he and Mortimer end up using them to generate confusion to cause suspense for the viewer, which is effective enough… only it’s a little cheap.

Despite excellent cinematography from Gayne Rescher and production design from John Robert Lloyd–most of the present action takes place in Hoffman’s apartment, with the flashbacks (and daydreams) expanding to New York City–Yates doesn’t have a tempo for any of it. Farrow’s more compelling than Hoffman, but not because of her writing or because of how Yates directs her; she’s sympathetic. From the start, Hoffman’s a jerk. And as the film peels back the onion, he gets jerkier as things progress.

Yates and Mortimer lean the film’s entire weight on the effectiveness of third act reveals, only all those reveals are with the time shift gimmicks. There aren’t any character development reveals. Sure, it’s only a day, but Hoffman and Farrow’s performances don’t gain anything from all the flashback exposition. That particular failing is more Mortimer’s fault than Yates’s, however.

Though if Yates had come up with better–read, any–integration of the film’s various moving parts, he’d probably have been able to compensate.

Instead, John and Mary gets by thanks to Farrow and Hoffman’s performances. She’s got a better character, turns in a better performance. He’s Dustin Hoffman, he’s got some inherent likability–even if the film does sledgehammer away at it, particularly in the first act. When he does get big moments in the script, no one really knows what to do with them. They’re all kind of trite; someone–Yates, Mortimer, or Hoffman–needs to have a handle on the character. None do. Yet Hoffman is still able to get through. He wouldn’t be able to without Farrow.

John and Mary’s not bad. It’s just not successful. Yates is way too blasé about the whole thing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by John Mortimer, based on the novel by Mervyn Jones; director of photography, Gayne Rescher; edited by Frank P. Keller; music by Quincy Jones; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Ben Kadish; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (John), Mia Farrow (Mary), Michael Tolan (James), Sunny Griffin (Ruth), Stanley Beck (Ernest), and Tyne Daly (Hilary).


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