Michael Tolkin's "The New Age" is about the flip side of trickle-down
economics: trickle-up poverty. Peter (Peter Weller) and Katherine (Judy
Davis) are an extremely prosperous L.A. couple whose luxurious lifestyle
starts to fall apart when he impulsively leaves his $300,000-a-year agent's
job on the same day her graphic-design company collapses. Possessing the
exquisite taste of born narcissists, Peter and Katherine decide to open a
trendy clothing store ("Hipocracy. It's not what you're looking for -- it's
what you need"). Meanwhile,
their marriage hits the rocks after Katherine discovers Peter's
infidelities. Lacking the cash to get new digs, each moves into a
different room of their expensive home, carrying on with their new lovers
by night while working together at the store by day.
"The New Age," which opened and closed in two weeks during the fall of
1994, is one of the most original American movies of recent years. But what
is it? Technically, it's a comedy of manners, though more often than not,
you're likely to find the laughter sticking in your throat. This is a movie
in which a character planning suicide decides that wearing summer pastels
would be less obvious than wearing black, that washing the poison down with
margaritas would be preferable to champagne. Tolkin's take on the chic
Angelenos who live on the periphery of the entertainment and arts worlds
and indulge in new-age gurus and rituals is often satirical, but
Tolkin refuses to make us comfortable by providing satire's usual distance.
His is not Woody Allen's view of spacey L.A. It's closer to the films about
upper-class Europeans that were so popular with art house audiences in the
Films like "La Dolce Vita" and the ennui-fests that were Michelangelo Antonioni's
follow-ups to "L'Avventura" lured audiences with the promise of a decadence
they pretended to condemn. It was the Cecil B. DeMille approach -- moralism
as a shill for sex and gaudy excess -- wrapped in bloodless European chic.
The look of "The New Age," shot by John Campbell, is cool, spotless,
inhumanly beautiful. Peter and Katherine's house, with its Ed Ruscha
paintings and rows of CDs so neat they might have been aligned using a
carpenter's level, looks defiantly unlived in. They're right at home there.
Tolkin shows us all the pretenses of affluent Los Angeles (and he has its customs and styles
and details down cold -- ice cold), but he doesn't allow us the luxury of
condemning this world as empty or inhuman. Peter and Katherine aren't
Antonioni's Eurozombies. Drawn to spiritualism, Katherine is always seeking
answers to the big questions. (Peter calls her "the mystic in the family.")
Tolkin, a novelist as well as a screenwriter and director, is one of the
few genuine moralists working today. His latest novel, "Among the Dead," was
the closest anyone has come to Flannery O'Connor, and his first film, "The
Rapture," was a completely serious vision of the Day of Judgment.
Tolkin sympathizes with Katherine's quest even as he sees that it doesn't
fit in with the level of hipness she wants to project. (When Peter notices
a talisman she has on, a gift from her guru, she dismisses it as "just, you
know, some hippie thing.") Judy Davis is better than anyone at translating
neurosis into high style: whenever she speaks here, you can hear the nerves
-- drawn as tight as the rubber bands on a toy guitar -- straining behind
the even tones she's struggling to maintain. The performance is a marvel of
sustained tenseness. Behind Katherine's smile, on the rare occasions it
appears, is the expectation that the ax is about to fall.
That happens in one neat, murderous stroke when, her store failing,
Katherine runs into a friend (played by Patricia Heaton as someone
perfectly comfortable with her own venomousness) who explains why she
hasn't invited Katherine and Peter to a party: "It's just that, you know
these days ... it makes us nervous ... somebody else's troubles. I just
need to be honest with you about that," she concludes, as if honesty
absolves the cruelty. One of the key images in "The New Age" is Davis'
face, her expressions as she tries to maintain her social disguise even
after it no longer has any purpose.
The movie's full horror, though, lies in Peter Weller's hollow cheeks and
sepulchral handsomeness. It's the face of someone being sucked dry from the
inside. Weller has always been a cold, precise actor; part of him refuses
to come alive. Peter is shallow, manipulative, with a killingly casual
willingness to seize any advantage. When his father (Adam West -- yes,
that Adam West, and he's brilliant) tries on an expensive red sports
jacket in front of his young girlfriend, Peter doesn't hesitate to show how
much better it looks on him. After his credit card is turned down -- "a
collect call from reality," his father says -- he glibly pulls out another
and ripostes, "You know what I say to reality? I say, reverse the charges."
The utter confidence of Weller's smile at that moment is a hardened version
of what Jean-Luc Godard showed us in the '60s, the look of someone willingly turning
himself into an advertisement.
The integrity of "The New Age" is that Tolkin makes us feel the dread in
the fall of this superficial man. Peter trades away his last sliver of
humanity as easily as Katherine trashes the files from her defunct
business. Peter's arrogance is a natural reflex. Answering a call from a
telephone salesman, he taunts, "Are you proud of yourself? Is this what you
wanted to be when you grew up?" The whole movie is arranged to answer the
question Peter asks when he hangs up the phone: "Who are these people?"
The willingness to go further than we expect is what defines Michael
Tolkin's work. George Cukor once praised the "offhand candor" of Philip
Barry's plays -- the way Barry initially seduces you with
his sophistication, leaving you unprepared for the moments of devastating
honesty that follow. Tolkin goes beyond candor into the truly shocking. I
can't think of any other filmmaker who is simultaneously so adept at
high-style comedy and so ruthless. The world of "The New Age" may seem as
empty as Peter and Katherine's home once it's been stripped of art and
furniture, but no space can ever be truly empty to Tolkin as long as it's
populated by people -- any kind of people. He mixes pitiless judgment with
chill compassion in a way that brings you closer than you ever imagined you
could get to people most of us are unlikely to ever meet. "The New Age"
plays like Noel Coward reimagined for '90s L.A., with ice water, rather than
champagne, coursing through its elegant veins.