Skip to main content

Let’s never be weirdos, okay?

The Sterile Cuckoo

(SPOILERS) Alan J Pakula’s debut has more in common with his ’80s relationship dramas than his more immediately adjacent ’70s forays into neo-noir. Even then, though, it stands somewhat apart. An adaptation of John Nichols’ 1965 novel of the same name, The Sterile Cuckoo actually bears closer resemblance – to jump to another decade – to ’90s indie pictures; it’s a low-key, lo-fi affair revolving around likeable or not-so-likeable eccentrics (we’ve seen not dissimilar from Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and Hal Hartley).

Pakula isn’t one for extravagant styling, though, so The Sterile Cuckoo makes its mark via character and theme, revolving around the relationship between two college students, loopy Pookie Adams (Liza Minnelli) and Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton). Pookie strongarms her way into affable, acquiescent, unexceptional Jerry’s life when they meet at a bus stop; on the journey, she proceeds to requisition a seat next to him by claiming they are brother and sister and “our mother just died”. Essentially, she’s an outrageous, compulsive liar – at one point, she informs Jerry she is pregnant, yet after Christmas break, he is told it miraculously “went away” – but we’re intended to find her sympathetic and vaguely endearing. And as Minnelli plays her, we very nearly do. However, when she tells Jerry “Sometimes, I have to get away from the noise, you know?” my response was the affirmative. 27 minutes in, and you haven’t stopped prattling.

Whatever baggage Minnelli subsequently accumulated (and just being Judy Garland’s daughter was sufficient to be getting on with), her performance is remarkably natural and assured; there’s no affectation or veneer here. It’s been said Garland didn’t think her daughter should take the role, as she identified too strongly with the character (something Pakula more or less confirmed). That may be so; there’s no doubting her Oscar nomination was well deserved, and it’s interesting that her subsequent screen career (give or take a Cabaret and Arthur) was so limited.

Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from Pookie being a nut, cuckoo in the coconut. Or to put it slightly kindlier, as Jerry says when he first meets her, “You’re a very unusual person”. She’s such a large personality, she needs someone she can project on, and Jerry’s blank slate is perfect. How much of her history is invention is never entirely clear, but as a delusionary dragging a poor, unsuspecting, well-meaning soul into her orbit, it wouldn’t be a great stretch for this whimsical tale to have taken a decidedly different, Play Misty for Me turn (the original screenplay apparently played up her stalkerish qualities).

We see that particularly with her pleas to come and stay with Jerry over Easter break (resistant, he eventually concedes to her request). She’s entirely adverse to any scenario where she’s no longer the centre of attention and reduced to part of the crowd, namely the student normies; in an inversion, anyone who fails to meet her rarefied standards, which is pretty much everyone but Jerry until he leaves her, is a “weirdo”.

Essentially, Pookie lacks basic empathy skills. Others have to meet her on her level, and she cannot even conceive of going halfway. She thinks nothing of manipulating and causing others emotional distress, and has exhibited this from an early age (telling the mailman she had leukaemia). That said, the ambiguous status of Jerry’s dormmate Charlie (Tim McIntire) finds her capable piercing insights; she believes he’s a closet case and suggests he has designs on Jerry. At very least, she is correct to recognise the chink in his macho bravado (“I bet you and me are the only two guys in the whole dorm who have never made out” he tells Jerry on a car trip).

It’s been suggested, as far as semi-autobiographical characters go, that Nichols portrayed himself/Jerry with much more respect than he deserved, as the writer was wont prey on vulnerable types such as Pookie; Jerry is essentially passive, like Ron Howard played by Jesse Plemmons, but it’s inevitable that he will eventually find Pookie’s fractured, possessive behaviour too much of a stress and strain. The ending, however, rather than a conflagration, simply finds Pookie dissipating; following their separation, she drops out of college. Jerry eventually finds her and puts her on a bus home, bringing her back round to a sympathy vote, an ache for one completely lost and unreachable because they’re so bound up in their own world.

Pakula allows the proceedings to amble, unfolding in a stately, episodic fashion; he’s highly reliant on montages and the recurrent use of The Sandpipers’ (Oscar-nominated) Come Saturday Morning. It’s a bit of an earworm, as it would surely have passed unnoticed, were it not for its employment as motif. Alvin Sargent (Gambit, Paper Moon, Ordinary People, Spider-Man 2) furnished the screenplay, his third produced, and Pakula imbues the proceedings with an unforced, naturalistic vibe. In that sense, The Sterile Cuckoo might be regarded as very much of its period, but the cultural awareness of its characters seems half-a-decade-or-more prior, closer to American Graffiti than The Graduate.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.