WHY ARE SMART people so wary of melodrama? Although it can sometimes seem cheap and reductive, taken on its own terms, melodrama that acknowledges itself as such can provide actors with a direct route to unembarrassed emotion. Performances like Barbara Stanwyck's in "Stella Dallas" or Barbra Streisand's in "The Way We Were" make the taste and restraint and proportion of "high" art seem beside the point. Educated audiences usually accept melodrama only when it disguises itself with a veneer of art (as in "The English Patient") or drags in history or some high-minded cultural notion ("Shine" did both, playing on both tortured artist clichis and making it appear as if the hero's father were a Holocaust survivor). I think those audiences -- the ones that Mike Figgis' new picture "One Night Stand" is aimed at -- consider the form so hopelessly beneath them that the notion that there can be good and bad melodrama never occurs to them.
Those assumptions may have something to do with why Figgis has, in "One Night Stand," gussied up material that, were it presented as melodrama, might have been much more affecting. The plot is simple enough: Two married people, a man and a woman, meet, have a brief fling and return to their spouses. A year later they meet again, and this sets off reverberations in both their marriages.
On the face of it, that's a melodrama, and maybe it still would have been if Figgis stuck with the original script, which was written by Joe Eszterhas. (Figgis reworked the script so completely that Eszterhas -- amicably, it's rumored -- took his name off it.) Figgis, though, is trying to pull off something like a big-city symphony of sex, loneliness and desires both requited and not. That is to say, it's slick and chic, if punctuated by apparently improvised scenes where the only thing the actors seem to have been directed to do is probe and quibble and pick at each other to arrive at "truth." It's as if a Cassavetes imitator were making a film based on a Vogue layout.
That empty chicness surrounds the male protagonist Max Carlyle (Wesley Snipes). Max is a successful L.A. director of swanky commercials. On a business trip to New York he meets Karen (Nastassja Kinski), and after a series of coincidences and mishaps throws them together, he ends up spending the night with her. That's essentially the first third of the film. The mid-section deals with Max returning home to his two kids and wife Mimi (Ming-Na Wen, tinny, grating and utterly unconvincing), the tensions in the marriage and his own dissatisfaction with his career. In the third act, a year later, Max and Mimi are in New York visiting a dying friend when they cross paths with Karen and her husband, Vernon. (Kyle MacLachlan, bringing his actor's common sense and decency to an ill-conceived character who would have been a boor in the hands of a lesser talent.)
If the circumstances that propel Max and Karen together feel contrived and even garish, the fact that they end up in bed together doesn't. The night Max spends at Karen's apartment could be any of those nights that begin with someone saying, "Well, I'll just sleep here," and proceeding from there. The connection between Snipes and Kinski isn't forced, and Figgis does a solid job building that connection from the initial discreet glances and tentative displays of friendliness to the attraction that, finally, neither tries to hide. It may sound sentimental that they're motivated more by feelings of isolation than by lust, but the way Snipes and Kinski play it, it doesn't feel sentimental.
Kinski's role isn't particularly developed, but since she left movies just at the moment when she was becoming most interesting as an actress (particularly in her performance in James Toback's "Exposed"), it's a pleasure to see her back. There's now an added gravity to her beauty that, if anything, makes her vulnerability even more touching. Especially since, as she plays Karen, it's a vulnerability without protective resources.
Snipes is stuck in some of the movie's worst scenes. There is some truly terrible comedy with Snipes having to deal with the family dog sniffing his crotch when he returns home, and some even worse moments when he has to show his contempt for his bourgeois co-workers at a dinner party he throws with his wife. But Snipes does a good job of underplaying Max's increasingly urgent unhappiness with his life and career. He's very believable as a talented guy who gets caught in the velvet trap of a lucrative job. What's most enjoyable about watching him though is simply that he gets to be a star here.
I may be wrong, but I don't think an American director working for a major studio would have thought to cast a black actor in this role without trying to make some arbitrary statement about race. Since Figgis doesn't, the part allows Snipes to play the sort of romantic leading man role white actors get a crack at all the time. Snipes has been better in other movies ("Rising Sun" and "White Men Can't Jump," to name two), but he's never before been allowed to be just what he is: one of the most gorgeous men in the movies.
There's pleasure to be had watching Snipes and Kinski coasting on their charisma, but they don't get to go any further -- and that points at what's wrong with Figgis' approach. Figgis is a former jazz musician, and music has always been integral to his movies. The free jazz in "Stormy Monday" enriched that movie's texture just as the standards did in "Leaving Las Vegas." Figgis is one of those directors who understands that the influence of music videos on movies hasn't been all bad, and he seems intent on exploring how that influence can be used to devise a new kind of film shorthand. "One Night Stand," however, is the first time that he's substituted music and visuals for acting, writing and direction. That may seem like a petty complaint when you get to hear the Julliard String Quartet performing Beethoven's "Cavatina" Opus 130, but after a while the movie begins to look like the commercials we see Max directing. The loose, improvisatorial scenes start to feel deliberately undeveloped, as if they were designed not to get in the way of the music.
What's really perverse about this is that it shortchanges the talent Figgis has shown as an actor's director in pictures like his lovely and still almost completely unseen film of "The Browning Version" (the perfect antidote to Merchant-Ivory's vellum-bound snoozers) and "Leaving Las Vegas." A filmmaker who gets the performances he got out of Albert Finney, Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in those films is someone who knows how to let actors push themselves further than they imagined themselves capable of going, and yet never go over the top.
The only person who reaches that level in "One Night Stand" is Robert Downey Jr., playing Max's friend Charlie, a choreographer who is dying of AIDS. The role could have been a real groaner. Charlie, whom Max reconciles with after a five-year falling-out, is meant to serve as a reminder that Max has sold out his artistic ideals by leaving the New York theater world, and that, contrary to the Rolling Stones song, time isn't on his side. There's nothing saintly or saccharine in the spiky way Downey plays Charlie. He's one of those friends who asks you the pointed, impolite questions you always hope to dodge. In some ways, he's a pain in the ass. He also cuts right through the bull.
That Downey never goes soft is even more amazing when you consider that most of his performance takes place in a hospital bed, deep in the final stages of AIDS. Technically, it's masterful: the shortness of breath, the weakness, the wracking spasms of pain all look absolutely authentic. More important, this is a performance that reminds you that technique counts for nothing without the sort of uncompromised, unpredictable emotional commitment that Downey brings to every moment of his screen time. When Charlie angrily refuses Max's offer to get a priest, telling him he's seen too many people lose courage in the last moment, Downey is acting from a place where technique alone simply won't carry you. You could watch this movie with the sound off and understand the ferocity of Charlie's hold on life from nothing more than the light that rises and fades in Downey's liquid eyes. I watched his final scenes thinking of Dylan Thomas' famous lines, and thinking that Downey's performance suggests that Thomas got it only half right. It's not just old age that should burn and rave at close of day.