Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 12, 2020)
Best known as the writer of classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader took the directorís chair for 1990ís The Comfort of Strangers. Based on Ian McEwanís 1981 novel, Schrader avoids a writing credit here, as Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter does that job.
When they struggle with their relationship, British couple Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) take a vacation to Venice so they can reconnect. This doesnít prove completely productive, but they attempt to sort through their issues.
As they search for a restaurant, they get lost, and bar owner Robert (Christopher Walken) invites them to his place. There he plies them with booze and tells bizarre tales about his life. This encounter leads to a strange relationship, one that forces the couple to confront various conflicts.
Given his history of gritty movies like those mentioned earlier, Schrader seems like an odd choice to handle a semi-artsy romantic drama like Comfort. That said, I admire his decision to step out of his zone and try something different.
Confronted with intensely dull lead characters, Schrader finds little to do with the material. Perhaps another director could locate substance here, but in Schraderís hands, Comfort becomes 90 minutes of nothing punctuated by a shock ending.
As with other adaptations, it seems unclear how much of the blame falls on the director, the screenwriter and/or the novelist. Given that I entered the film without foreknowledge of the source, I canít judge how faithfully the movie adheres to it.
All I do know is that Comfort offers a snoozer, a cautionary tale with little to really engage the viewer. We get the basic point not to trust strangers just to stay polite, and thatís about it.
Colin and Mary really do offer bland characters, and that becomes a fatal flaw. While attractive, they bring us a dull couple, and we never really invest in their relationship.
It doesnít help that the nature of this partnership seems to change without rhyme or reason. One minute the two seem hopelessly disconnected from each other, while the next, they act like the closest of lovers.
Granted, I understand that this happens in long-term relationships, as youíll go from zero to 60 Ė and back again - with little provocation. Not everything about romantic couplings follows a logical route.
However, the Mary/Colin relationship just never rings true. They feel like a phony movie couple, and we donít care about them very much.
I guess Comfort attempts to compensate for their blandness with the oddball Robert and his equally strange wife Caroline (Helen Mirren). Both behave in overstated, theatrical ways that act as blaring sirens to warn Colin and Mary not to trust them.
Therein lies the aforementioned cautionary tale, as we see that Colin and Mary ignore their instincts because they donít want to seem rude. These scenes go past the point of sanity, though, and they expect the viewer to swallow too much weirdness.
For instance, at one point, Caroline reveals that she crept into a bedroom and watched Mary and Colin as they slept. Our main couple essentially just shrugs and goes along with the evening, despite the fact any sane people would immediately head for the exit.
In addition, one scene shows a conversation during which Robert abruptly punches Colin in the stomach for no reason. Again: normal people would call it a night Ė and probably contact the police Ė but Colin just regains his breath and downs another glass of champagne.
If Comfort managed any real character development or events of interest, these flights of fancy would seem less problematic. However, as noted earlier, the movieís first 90 minutes pass with remarkably little substance or dramatic tension.
Sure, we get the sense of strangeness from Caroline and Robert, but the film does little with this. It often feels more like an erotic travelogue than an actual narrative.
As mentioned, matters change at the end, as Comfort throws a startling ending at us. I canít call this ďout of nowhereĒ since the filmís portrayal of Caroline and Robert as weirdos seems intended to lead somewhere, but it still feels like shock for shockís sake and a tacky attempt to override the ennui of the prior 90 minutes.
All of this leads to a slow, dull journey to not much of anywhere. Despite a ton of talent involved, Comfort fails to engage.