Based on my superficial knowledge of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice before watching it, I expected a swinger sex farce, taking advantage of the loosening mores and relaxed content restrictions of the late ’60s to portray two pairs of married friends who indulge in becoming something more. But it ended up being a lot more than that, to my pleased surprise.
Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) attend a self-discovery retreat, initially because Bob intends to make a film about it, but after a revelatory and emotional group counseling session, they become believers and want to share their new-found enlightenment with their best friends Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon). But Ted and Alice aren’t quite ready for their friends’ touchy-feely gospel and being told that they should live in total openness and truth makes them more uncomfortable than anything. Here I expected the film to side with Bob and Carol unequivocally and paint Ted and Alice as hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch. But actually, the film is more balanced and thoughtful than that.
The most clear comparison of the two couples comes in the middle of the film, after Bob, in a fit of abject honesty, tells Carol about a brief fling he’d had on a business trip the previous year. Rather than being angry, Carol embraces Bob’s honesty and proceeds to make love to him while asking him for details about the other woman. Soon after, Carol tells Ted and Alice about Bob’s fling; Alice takes on the righteous indignation that she felt Carol should’ve had in the situation, which sets off an extended fight between Alice and Ted. The thing about these two almost subsequent scenes is that they’re BOTH quite dysfunctional and even disturbing.
As the film continues, it becomes more and more clear that there’s really no intention on writer/director Paul Mazursky’s part to endorse Carol’s whole-hearted leap into an open relationship, and in fact, her movement toward that (taking a lover for very little reason) is in some ways both a misreading of the initial message from the retreat and an elaborately passive-aggressive way to deal with her distrust of Bob. Bob goes along with it, partially because he too has misunderstood the therapy, but also because he tacitly accepts Carol’s right to get back at him. The mirror of this situation is Alice’s brash suggestion that they all switch partners for a night – the aggressive version of what Carol has already basically done passively. But the form of real enlightenment that hits the foursome in the very last few seconds is simple and some might argue too facile, but more meaningful than any of the chasing they’ve been doing the rest of the film.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a lot more subtle than I expected, with a lot of depth in the writing and characterization – it isn’t a comedy at all, but a rather uncomfortable drama much of the time, and it’s better off for it. The loosely mirrored structure and the tension built with well-placed dialogue and acting is quite compelling, and I’m really glad I didn’t knock this one off my list, as I nearly did. In fact, after seeing this one, I went right out and added another Mazursky film, Next Stop, Greenwich Village to the list – looking forward to catching that one in a few weeks.