Followers of Alan Rudolph’s career will rejoice at his latest effort, “Afterglow,” an incredibly and incurably romantic comedy-drama that most perceptively dissects the delicate imbalances of two very modern but very different marriages. In a major comeback, the still strikingly beautiful Julie Christie renders such a glowingly captivating performance that she alone justifies the price of admission for a movie whose helmer’s devotees will admire for its mature approach and visual sophistication, while his detractors might dismiss it as no more than a divertissement. Though audiences for Rudolph’s movies have been small, this meticulously gorgeous Robert Altman production deserves to be seen on the wide screen to appreciate its considerable charm — and glorious mise-en-scene.
Precisely 20 years after his debut, Rudolph returns to concerns that preoccupied him in his early pics, most notably ”Welcome to L.A.” and ”Choose Me.” Though lacking the quirky charm and more accessible appeal of ”Choose Me,” Rudolph’s best (and most commercial) film, ”Afterglow” employs the same narrative structure, revolving around four characters whose paths criss-cross and fates intertwine. This time around, the quartet of characters don’t wander in and out of Eve’s lounge (as in ”Choose Me”), but rather the bar of a Montreal hotel and an elegant duplex.
An ambitious corporate exec, Jeffrey Byron (Jonny Lee Miller) is a self-centered twentysomething careerist who’s convinced that ”everything’s working quite well on many levels.” In contrast, his sexually frustrated wife, Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle), believes that ”nothing is working,” least of all her burning desire to become a mother, a wish denied by Jeffrey. While Marianne is carefully tracking her fertility cycle, he’s tracking the stock market.
Across town, Lucky (Fix-It) Mann (Nick Nolte), an amorous repair contractor, experiences his own marital problems with longtime spouse Phyllis (Christie), a former B-movie actress who spends most of her time watching her lousy old pictures and nostalgically reminiscing about happier times. Both marriages are sexually and emotionally barren, albeit for different reasons. Rudolph does a masterful job as scripter, treating the story as a jigsaw puzzle whose overall pattern gradually becomes clear. It turns out the older duo has never come to terms with their daughter’s departure after she heard a cruel argument between them.
The quartet is thrown off balance when handyman Lucky arrives at the Byron’s ultra-designed apartment to do some minor repairs and Marianne becomes instantly infatuated with him, throwing herself into his arms. As always, Rudolph’s narratives are as shapely, graceful and symmetric as the decor of his films. ”Afterglow” is no exception: It takes no time for Jeffrey to meet and immediately fall for the older and more sophisticated Phyllis. While most of the film cross-cuts between the two newly formed couples, eventually all four meet at the Ritz Hotel to face each other and themselves.
For this modern fairy tale to be enchanting, it needed four spectacular performers; unfortunately, it has only two. In her most polished performance since ”Shampoo” and ”Heaven Can Wait,” Christie dominates every scene she is in, rendering the witty, often wickedly funny lines that Rudolph has scripted for her with the kind of suave irony brought by experience and savoir vivre. She is ably supported by Nolte, in a flashy, equally demanding role.
The younger members of the cast present pic’s major problem. Boyle is too harsh and one-dimensional, failing to make the transition adroitly from a bitter, lonely femme to one wildly intoxicated by her extramarital tryst. Miller, who was so impressive as Sick Boy in ”Trainspotting,” is pale and a bit stiff. This may be a function of the writing, as there’s no doubt that Rudolph favors the older couple (who are his own age) with more sympathetic and multishaded portrayals.
Still, whatever is wrong with the acting is made up by the fluid staging and leisurely pacing (Rudolph’s hallmark as director) that make ”Afterglow” serious and comic, frivolous and substantial, giddy and lyrical all at the same time. With Altman as producer, the entire movie has a choreographic fluency to it, accentuated by first-rate production values, especially Toyomichi Kurita’s swoony camera, which fits Rudolph’s inherent romanticism like a silk glove.