Wednesday, November 01, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

Now here's a prime slice of 1990s "thriller" cheese. In regards to Sleeping with the Enemy, I don't know that a worse movie has ever pressed itself so deeply and so permanently into the national lexicon (at least with the exception of Prince of Tides).

I mean, we all remember Julia Roberts discovering the straightened towels in her bathroom during the climax of Sleeping with the Enemy, don't we? And the lined-up cans in her cupboard? I know that for me, to this day, when my wife and I have an argument, I always (jokingly...) approach her by saying, "I'm sorry we quarreled...," Patrick Bergin's rejoinder and non-apology-apology to Julia Roberts' character in the film.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's re-cap the plot of this really terrible movie and guilty pleasure before we start dissecting the film's lack of virtues. Julia Roberts plays Laura Burney, a kept woman who lives every day in mortal fear of her abusive, obsessive-compulsive husband, Martin (Patrick Bergin). In order to escape her seaside dungeon (a beautiful modern home on Cape Cod...), Laura learns to swim - behind Martin's back - and then fakes her own death on a dark and stormy night at sea.

As Sarah Waters (get it? Waters?), Laura begins her life anew in a Norman Rockwellish, Red State midwestern small town. There, a drama teacher, Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson) romances the tender-hearted woman, who's seen so much of male ugliness. But big bad Martin is not ready to give up his wife, and so he follows Laura's trail...preparing for that day of reckoning when he will again make this woman subservient. He's unaware, however, that Laura has come a long way, baby. This woman has learned to take care of herself and will never be a victim again...

These days, people often ask me why, when and how American mainstream film changed from being wonderful (1960s, 1970s and 1980s) to being generally rotten (1990s to present). In response, I point my accusatory middle finger at the early 1990s and films such as Sleeping with the Enemy. I believe that this was the sad, sad epoch in cinema history that screenwriters and directors with essentially no talent and no sense of artistry somehow ascended to the top tiers of Hollywood. The vast majority of them are graduates of film programs or film schools; but nonetheless people who don't understand film grammar or imagery and only want to be "the next Steven Spielberg." Essentially, these tyros couldn't write or direct their way out of a paper bag, leaving their production teams - particularly production designers and special effects technicians - to carry the weight of their less-than-satisfactory movies.

Exhibit A of bad 1990s movies could be Sleeping with the Enemy. What little artistry exists in this film rests entirely in the field of production design (courtesy of Doug Kraner). To wit, Martin's home is an example of glorious (but cold...) modern architecture. It is all hard angles and big windows (so we can see everything going on inside...), but it's a place where we wouldn't want to live. It is devoid of warmth, and generally the space is empty (think of the hotel in Kubrick's The Shining, only with zen minimalist furnishings). Like I wrote above, this is Laura's dungeon, and the architecture tells us everything we need to know about Martin's character: he's a stone cold bastard; stoic and austere...shorn of human warmth. Oh, the Berlioz (also from Kubrick's The Shining...) as love theme adds to the impression of a sociopathic maniac.

Then, at the film's 29 minute point, this Rapunzel escapes her tower prison, and heads to heartland America. Suddenly, the film is lensed entirely in autumnal browns and glowing oranges. All the warmth we missed in the white-on-white first portion of the film is now evident and on-screen by the bushel full. Laura rents a beautiful, perfectly restored historic home with a giant porch...wonderfully furnished. How she can afford this remains a mystery. However, it is only here in this "bosom," surrounded by Americana nostalgia and the trappings of the healthy middle class that her catharsis can begin. We get a montage of Laura "nesting" in this new "warm" home: painting kitchen cabinets, setting out potted plants, and swinging by sunset on her porch swing. Yes, it's individual therapy by way of Martha Stewart; the zen of Home Depot. Paint some cabinets, arrange some flowers, consume and purchase...and you will be happy and your inner child will be healed.

After the surprisingly effective production design (which tells us more about the world the characters inhabit than does the script), there's precious little for Sleeping with The Enemy to rely on, save a grandiose and overblown score by Jerry Goldsmith that to this day I can't get out of my head. Occasionally, you will notice, it is still used in movie trailers. Anyway, the rest of the film is a manipulation of Julia Robert's Pretty Woman image (already old by 1991, if you ask me...) and the requisite cheap thrills.

Let's get to Julia Roberts first. I generally have no problem with her as an actress, though I don't exactly like her either. She's mis-used badly in this film, particularly in a totally out-of-place and campy "Pretty Woman" montage that occurs with theatre instructor Ben at the college's drama department. There, to the tune of "Brown Eyed Girl," Julia does her "cute little girl" routine with costumes and props.. in one of the most nauseating, treacly montages I've had the misfortune to sit through. She adorns various and sundry "funny" hats and flashes that trademark million dollar grin. She puts on clown pants and juggles too. She wears elephant ears. She adorns a top hat. Kill me now.

Next, "Runaround Sue" is on the soundtrack as Ben and Laura dance together and connect on a human level her former husband could never understand. I merely point this out, but when a movie can't conjure the emotions necessary via acting, camera angles or script, it is forced to plug in a nostalgic, popular song that will do the job. This sort of soundtrack pinch hitting occurs twice in Sleeping with the Enemy.

As for Kevin Anderson's Ben...who, you ask? Well, uh Anderson is granted a particularly lame introductory scene. Julia spies him through her window as he's dancing in the backyard to the lyrics of West Side Story, using a water hose as a prop. It would be hard for any acting career to recover from this scene, and I think that's the case for old Kevin Anderson, since I haven't seen much of him lately. Also, there's a weird sub-text here. Laura has escaped a sexually domineering Alpha male in Bergin's Martin, and there's a scene where she endures rough intercourse with him (again, to the strains of Berlioz, I believe...). She exchanges this for...a West-Side Story singing guy who uses a water hose? Would that garden hose be a sign of some inadequacy on Ben's part? That West Side Story singing an indication of a less-than-heterosexual inclination?

Don't ask; don't tell.

After a comedy of poorly constructed coincidences (meant to create tension...) in which Martin and Laura fail to spot each other at a nursing home, the final act of Sleeping with the Enemy arrives and it's the inevitable home invasion we've seen in a hundred 1990s films (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Blue Steel, and Unlawful Entry...). Martin shows up to re-arrange the towels and cans, there's some tussling, and then she thinks he's dead. Surprise, he's not and he gets up again!!! Wow, who didn't see that one coming?

In the end, it takes three shots to put down the mad-dog (but virile...) husband, and Julia is left in the waiting arms of her new "safe" boyfriend. The ending is as predictable as everything else in this canned, homogenized, and processed thriller. Yet...the film survives and is well-remembered to this day by many. Sleeping with the Enemy is on the boob tube once a week - at least on basic cable - and was even re-made (sort of) as a J Lo movie a few years back, Enough.

So what's the appeal?

If you ask me, it's that the production design makes us feel a certain way which, at least subconsciously, we find comforting. It's a rejection of unAmerican coldness and an embracing of warm Americana. Oh, and the film is undeniably appealing to disenfranchised housewives who wish their husbands were more sensitive. They somehow groove on the idea of "escaping" everyday life, moving to an idyllic town and romancing an effeminate man who can communicate with them and meet all their needs with a minimum of fuss. What the movie is actually saying -and which I don't think these viewers understand - is that Laura can't be alone; can't survive on her own. She's just traded one unacceptable man for an acceptable one; but she's still defined herself as a "girlfriend" or wife. It's actually a very anti-feminist movie; not the pro-female parable that it masquerades as.

The cinema of the 1990s - the cinema of Sleeping with the Enemy - provides critics with a most difficult proposition. Before the 1990s, you could usually tell a bad film right off. Horrible actors, bad sound, and ineffective out-of-focus camera work were tell-tale signs you were in movie hell.

Yet by the 1990s, virtually every film to come out of the Hollywood machine was flawless from a technical standpoint, even sumptuous. Camera work is pristine. Music is evocative. The sound is impeccable. But the stories? That's where the cliches rest.

Even good critics might be taken in by Sleeping with the Enemy; they might be hypnotized by that production design; enraptured by that architecture. These "face" values hide the fact that movie's script is silly and stupid. One example of the latter: Martin discovers Laura's wedding ring floating in his bathroom toilet months after she supposedly died and started her new life. What, he hasn't used the bathroom in his house even once in all that time? Now that's mourning...
It used to take a few hundred thousand dollars and bad camera work to make a bad movie; with the advent of fare like Sleeping with the Enemy, Hollywood proved it could spend tens-of-millions to achieve the same result.


  1. A while back, there was an interesting NY Times article on Michael Tolkin, who suggests that recent American cinema is suffering from failure to acknowledge the classic "journey of the hero" story structure (Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, etc.)... an interesting subject for debate. I'd be curious to hear your take on if / how this affected the horror genre, which seemed to have an identity crisis during the heyday of the "psychological thriller"... but I suppose we'll have to wait for "Horror Films of the 1990s" (a slimmer volume, no doubt, than Horror Films of the 70s and 80s)....

  2. its so strange now, that movies i haven't seen but remember coming out and starring julia roberts, have become bad forgotten cult relics. it feels good, and makes me feel better about examining the film continuum.

  3. Anonymous10:07 AM

    If you enjoyed Sleeping with the Enemy then let me suggest "Enough" starring J-Lo. It is so rediculous but is funny all at the same time. It has a very similar thriller premise. Watch it and let us know what you think!

    -Wat Tambor

  4. This was on last night and I watched just long enough to hear my favorite line. "What's for supper?" "Lamb with rosemary and peach chutney, new potatoes and baby peas." It sounds so ostentatious! Then I just couldn't take it any more.

  5. Anonymous5:12 PM

    Did you miss that there were multiple bathrooms in the house? The bathroom he was in when he found the ring was HER bathroom. When you realize that, it such a struggle.