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The Boston Phoenix Tarnished Night

"Stand" almost delivers.

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 17, 1997: 

ONE NIGHT STAND, Directed and written by Mike Figgis. With Wesley Snipes, Nastassja Kinski, Kyle MacLachlan, Ming-Na Wen, and Robert Downey Jr. A New Line Cinema release. At the Nickelodeon, the Harvard Square, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

After the Ingmar Bergman-like angst, melodrama, and pessimism of his acclaimed Leaving Las Vegas, director Mike Figgis has tried something more along the lines of Woody Allen in his new One Night Stand. Where the former movie had the chaotic detachment and cathartic arc of a fatal binge, the latter has the timing, absurdity, and middlebrow sophistication of a stand-up act. It also has the middlebrow sophistication and emotional introspectives of Woody's "serious" comedies, and the result is often elegant though sometimes glib, arty when not artsy, and ingenious though at times contrived. What elevates it into something more than a spirited exercise are the committed and exacting performances of the cast.

That includes Wesley Snipes in perhaps his most layered and brooding performance. He's Max Carlyle, a high-powered director of TV commercials and a solid family man with a wife, Mimi (a feisty Ming-Na Wen -- this film is relentlessly multicultural), and two kids who's in New York for business. While there he visits his HIV-diagnosed friend Charlie (Robert Downey Jr., winsome and lacerating). The elliptical exchange between them suggests a previous relationship beyond friendship, and under Charlie's mordant interrogation Max's confidence in his façade of success, integrity, and responsibility wilts.

His business finished (Figgis affects a Altman-like ensemble improvisation in scenes between Max and his staff, with mixed results), Max sets out for home. Fate in the form of deft narrative sleight of hand intervenes. Through a series of mishaps and coincidences -- a leaky pen, a traffic-blocking parade, an extra concert ticket, a couple of muggers -- that only in retrospect seem forced, Max ends up spending the evening in the hotel room of Karen (a shyly seductive Nastassja Kinski).

They're strangers, but throughout the previous day their paths had crossed, and each had drawn the other's eye and let it pass. Thrown together by circumstances they lose any capacity to pretend it's all innocent, and their fidelity to their respective mates (she's married too, it turns out -- to a surprisingly faded-looking Kyle MacLachlan) recedes.

Figgis is at his best in depicting the pas de deux of self-deceits and accommodations of two persons who allow the tricks of destiny to release unrecognized desire. Much of what transpires occurs without -- or despite -- the dialogue. As the two listen to the Juilliard Quartet perform Beethoven's last string quartets, the play of emotions on each face -- especially Snipes's -- mirrors the passion and eloquence of the music. In a style of mannered cinéma-vérité -- hand-held camera, fragmented, blackout cuts -- Figgis shows with irony and compassion the almost imperceptible progression from reserve and resolve to complete abandonment and anarchy.

Max returns home torn and guilty; except for some funny business from the family dog and some even funnier crossed signals with Mimi, though, his indiscretion goes undetected. But not forgotten. Snipes is wrenching in his portrayal of a man embittered by what he has attained -- a big reputation in a profession that sells pickles, a wife who shouts out signals like a quarterback to maximize her orgasm, an enviable life that's secure and without passion and set for good. Stoked by booze and pot, he disrupts meetings and parties as cracks appear in his social veneer. What's exposed is raw, seething, and ugly.

A year of this passes. Now Charlie is dying, and Figgis's boldness and imagination wane as well. Max visits Charlie in the hospital with Mimi in tow, and in a twisted and clever fashion the sins of the past are punished and rewarded. There's the specter of death, of course, which could have been mawkish and contrived if not for Downey's chilling and very funny depiction of the sheer tedium of suffering and the terror of the void. Fine deathbed scenario though it is, it's still just a device in a resolution that works like a well-executed set-up and punch line but fails as convincing drama.

Figgis deserves a laugh, though, after confronting remorseless nihilism in Las Vegas. Not that Stand is all slickness and light, either. Few films this year have come close to addressing the depths and deviations in relationships, the blurring line between faith in oneself and fidelity in another. Although the climax feels fake, the foreplay in this One Night Stand is the real thing.

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