Review: ‘The New Age’

At one point in "The New Age," the terminally stylish post-yuppie couple played by Peter Weller and Judy Davis put on their fanciest threads in order to commit double suicide, but can't go through with it. Like them, Michael Tolkin's new film gets all dressed up but doesn't quite know where to go. Pic's ambitions , sporadic wit and fashionable surfaces will be enough to attract a certain slice of the hip upscale crowd. But very early, regular folks will tune out the empty, emotionally troubled characters on view here, resulting in spotty B.O.

At one point in “The New Age,” the terminally stylish post-yuppie couple played by Peter Weller and Judy Davis put on their fanciest threads in order to commit double suicide, but can’t go through with it. Like them, Michael Tolkin’s new film gets all dressed up but doesn’t quite know where to go. Pic’s ambitions , sporadic wit and fashionable surfaces will be enough to attract a certain slice of the hip upscale crowd. But very early, regular folks will tune out the empty, emotionally troubled characters on view here, resulting in spotty B.O.

As in his first directorial outing, “The Rapture,” Tolkin once again focuses on people who have lost their way in a society defined principally by appearances and sales pitches.

Earlier film was provocative in its surprising look at religious fanaticism, but lingering doubts about Tolkin’s p.o.v. on his material are exacerbated by the seemingly all-pervasive cynicism on the loose in “The New Age”: It’s easy to make fun of an obsession with materialism, as well as of the religious cults people may pursue in reaction, but it’s a lot tougher to offer up a viable alternative that makes sense in the face of the daily bombardment of sensation, information and opinion.

Tolkin wears an intelligent smirk, but a smirk is the most superficial of reactions, covering any lack of values of your own.

Peppy opening scenes have upscale El Lay denizens Peter and Katherine Witner (Weller and Davis) losing the big-buck jobs that have enabled them to live the high life in the Hollywood Hills through the face-the-music early ’90s.

When bummed, what better to do than throw a huge party, one that features the usual black-draped models, arch artistes, studio types and mystical, quasi-religious weirdos who have always found Los Angeles to be their happiest hunting ground.

In bad shape as a couple, Peter and Katherine begin fooling around openly and then agree to separate while still living under the same roof. Their proximity allows them to continue arguing, and Tolkin occasionally gets off a bon mot, such as when Katherine sarcastically asks her selfish husband, “Why don’t you get in touch with your inner adult?”

But prolonged exposure to their emotional and spiritual exhaustion doesn’t bring the viewer any closer to these angst-ridden moderns, who compound their folly by opening a chic clothing store that’s minimalist in both its merchandise and volume of business.

So as their lives collapse around them, the two seek salvation elsewhere; Katherine in New Age spirituality (sought, as in “The Rapture,” in the California desert), Peter tentatively in the kinky club scene and ultimately in phone sales.

Through sharing their feelings of being lost and getting on each other’s nerves, the pair comes together again in a certain way, but the dramatic trajectory and satiric purpose become fuzzier as the finish line approaches, leaving the film less than coherent in articulating its attitudes.

Part of picture’s sourness is reflected by the name of the store the couple open — Hipocracy. A strained attempt at sophisticated humor, such a choice would seem to doom almost any enterprise to failure.

Together again after their outstanding pairing in “Naked Lunch,” Weller and Davis search for as many nuances to nerve-wracked edginess as they can while remaining remote at their cores.

For someone who seems to care so little, it is mysterious why Weller’s occasionally wacky character isn’t willing to take more risks; he’s blase, yet tightly coiled. Davis is compelling to watch, as always, but it would have been helpful if there were at least one thing her Katherine really wanted in life; she’s such a lost soul one can’t get any kind of handle on her.

Most of the supporting characters wander in and out of the Witners’ lives without much in the way of visible connections, save for Peter’s playboy father, nicely etched by Adam West (father and son share the same pickup line for ladies –“How are your morals?”).

Lots of attention has been lavished on ultra-trendy locations, sets and clothes, although John Campbell’s lensing manages to make everyone look pretty wasted and unattractive, which might be part of the point but doesn’t prove inviting.

The New Age

(Satiric drama -- Color)

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films presentation of an Ixtlan/Addis-Wechsler production. Produced by Nick Wechsler, Keith Addis. Executive producers, Oliver Stone, Arnon Milchan. Co-producers, Iya Labunka, Janet Yang. Directed, written by Michael Tolkin.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), John H. Campbell; editor, Suzanne Fenn; music, Mark Mothersbaugh; production design, Robin Standefer; art direction, Kenneth A. Hardy; set design, Barbara Ann Jaeckel; set decoration, Claire Jenora Bowin; costume design, Richard Shissler; sound (Dolby), Stephen Halbert; associate producer, Alison Balian; assistant director, Christine Larson; casting, Deborah Aquila. Reviewed at the Directors Guild of America, L.A., Aug. 18, 1994. (In Telluride, Toronto fests.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 min.

With

Peter Witner ... Peter Weller Katherine Witner ... Judy Davis Jean Levy ... Patrick Bauchau Kevin Bulasky ... Corbin Bernsen Paul Hartmann ... Jonathan Hadary Anna ... Patricia Heaton Dale Deveaux ... Samuel L. Jackson Sandi Rego ... Audra Lindley Alison Gale ... Paula Marshall Laura ... Maureen Mueller Bettina ... Tanya Pohlkotte Misha ... Bruce Ramsay Sarah Friedberg ... Rachel Rosenthal Mary Netter ... Sandra Seacat Ellen Saltonstall ... Susan Traylor Jeff Witner ... Adam West
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