R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 02/20/1997, B: Tom Meek,
Rafelson’s Blood & Wine runs thin
by Tom Meek
BLOOD & WINE. Directed by Bob Rafelson. Written by Nick Villiers and Alison Cross, based on a story by Rafelson and Villiers. With Jack Nicholson, Judy Davis, Michael Caine, Stephen Dorff, and Jennifer Lopez. At the Nickelodeon, the Harvard Square, and the Circle and in the suburbs.
Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson mesmerized audiences with Five Easy Pieces in 1970; two years later they struck again with the bitter, dark The King of Marvin Gardens. Pieces featured Nicholson as the kind of self-concerned, sardonic antihero that was so prevalent at the time (The Graduate, Easy Rider). In Gardens, Rafelson took a chance and cast him as the introverted, intellectual brother opposite Bruce Dern’s pie-in-the-sky shyster — a gonzo role that seemed tailor-made for Nicholson’s on-screen persona. Now, some 25 years later, Rafelson and Nicholson have reunited to conclude an unofficial trilogy that journeys through the veins of dysfunctional bonds.
For all that Blood & Wine is a complex and engaging drama, it feels contrived.Pieces and Gardens flowed naturally; here Rafelson seems to struggle with the standards of ’90 sensationalism. Nicholson’s Alex Gates, a Miami-based wine merchant, is a one-dimensional character: he’s on the brink of financial ruin, his marriage is in shambles, but he continues to indulge in a life beyond his means with a sporty BMW and a sultry mistress.
Neither of Nicholson’s other Rafelson characters was that likable, but those films worked off the gothic struggle to break free and discover oneself while conforming to the pressures of family duty. Blood & Wine starts with that premise but never comes full circle. To restore his finances and launch a new life, Alex hatches a plan to rip off one of his wealthy clients with the help of Victor Spansky (Michael Caine), a poker buddy and convicted safecracker. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Alex and Victor are all set to fence a million-dollar necklace when Alex’s wife, Suzanne (Judy Davis), finds two plane tickets for his alleged spur-of-the-moment business trip to New York and calls him on it. She’s hobbled from a broken foot, so when the heated argument turns physical, she beats Alex senseless with her cane. In a panic she grabs the suitcase with the necklace hidden inside it and runs off.
At least Rafelson’s steady hand keeps things credible and moving. And Caine’s wheezing, asthmatic crook is both sympathetic and menacing, especially as Alex and Victor take off after Suzanne and Alex’s stepson, Jason (Stephen Dorff). Jason is protective of his mother; when he discovers what Alex is up to, he gets into the game both for revenge and for the thrill of it. Not only does he toy with Alex over the necklace, he begins to pursue Alex’s mistress, Gabriella (Jennifer Lopez in the film’s other standout performance proves why she is a new face to watch for).
This is the point where Blood & Wine moves from being a drama about frayed edges to a cat-and-mouse road movie. It’s also the point where Rafelson loses control. As Alex and Victor career down a dark Key West road after Suzanne and Jason, the director ventures into territory that begs for the Coen brothers. He is clearly out of his element, and the film’s conclusion is both perplexing and unsatisfactory.
Then too, Dorff’s brooding, angry young man is light years away from Nicholson’s rebel in Pieces; he waltzes through his part. And Davis, usually an on-screen pleasure, is largely wasted in a potentially juicy role that is reminiscent of Karen Black’s thankless lover in Pieces.
Nicholson has no classic Jackisms like his infamous chicken-salad-sandwich shtick, but he’s more refined here than he has been in years. It’s hard to imagine that the creative team that started with Monkees movie Head in 1968 and went on to such immense success in the ’70s would be stumped here — then again, they collaborated on the dismal Man Trouble in 1992. Blood & Wine is rewarding for its performances and the material it explores, but ultimately it’s messy.