Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
I seem to have encountered a lot of films adapted from stage plays recently. That may just be my memory playing tricks on me. Anyway, Six Degrees of Separation is indeed adapted from a stage play, and Oscar nominee Stockard Channing played the role on stage before undertaking it on film. This is a difficult film for me for two primary reasons, both of which we’ll get to. It’s one where I kind of love the premise and hate the execution, which means the next few paragraphs should be interesting.
Let me say this right now. I hate everyone in this film. I hate them all. I hate the parents because they’re pretentious assholes and I hate their children for the spoiled, whiny assholes, snotty, bitchy, ungrateful piles of shit they are. I can’t imagine anyone liking these people at all. These aren’t movie rich people, these are the sorts of people who eat thousand dollar plates of food and complain that the china wasn’t shiny enough.
Anyway, Flan (Donald Sutherland) and Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing) are planning an evening out with their South African friend Geoffrey Miller (Ian McKellen). Geoffrey is, they explain to a gathering throng of people, the sort of man who doesn’t have money for dinner but can easily spare a couple of million for a project. Flan Kittredge is an art dealer of the sort who doesn’t specifically deal on the open market but not exactly illegal. He moves paintings to buyers on something like a grey market, essentially buying them himself and brokering sales, making a massive profit in the deal. As the film starts, he’s working on a deal that will make millions, but they need Geoffrey’s money to do it first, hence the evening planned.
Their plans are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Paul (Will Smith). Paul claims to have been mugged and has a stab wound in his side. He claims to know Flan and Ouisa’s children and also to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He spins a long yarn for the trio, talking about his thesis (which was stolen) and naming off details about their life. He also cooks them dinner and the Kittredges put him up for the night, since he claims that his father will be in town the next morning to work on a movie version of Cats. The next morning, Ouisa discovers him having sex with another man and the Kittredges kick both men out, then make a quick inventory of their house to discover nothing missing. This is the story that they tell through the film—most of this is told in flashback.
Eventually, they meet up with their friends Kitty (Mary Beth Hurt) and Larkin (Bruce Davison) who tell them a wild story about the son of Sidney Poitier being mugged and showing up on their doorstep. The two couples compare notes and discover that they’ve been the victims of something like a swindle despite missing nothing from their homes. They report this to the police, and soon discover that Dr. Fine (Richard Masur), the father of one of their children’s friends, has also been duped by “Paul Poitier.”
Eventually, with the assistance of their ungrateful and spitefully evil children, they track down one of the kids’ high school friends, Trent (Anthony Michael Hall). As it happens, Trent is gay and picked up Paul one night. They lived together for three months and Trent taught Paul how to move in wealthy circles and taught him all about the families of his high school friends, thus giving Paul the knowledge of where people live and enough of their life details to insinuate himself into their lives. Eventually, after a run-in with a couple from Utah (Heather Graham and Eric Thal) and he contacts Ouisa, who seems to have a particular connection with him.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, the entire point of the name is the idea that we are all six degrees—six people—away from everyone else on the planet. You can get to anyone if only you can find the right six people to get you there. This is an idea that plagues Ouisa, because she discovers that she wants to help Paul. She feels for him, almost as if she wants to adopt him and make him into the child she ultimately didn’t get with her own kids. This is despite Paul’s latest ruse of claiming to be Flan’s unwanted black son, causing potential damage to Flan’s delicate reputation.
Really, that’s the whole plot here. Everyone in this film is completely self-absorbed. Everyone. And more or less, the story is about Ouisa’s discovery that there is something like a life outside of herself, that it’s possible for her to care about something other than her husband’s next paycheck and her next fancy meal. We’re led to believe by the end of the film that this discovery of hers may have real ramifications on her life and on her marriage. And because of this, Ouisa is about the only character who is really worth anything here.
I need to bring up Will Smith. His performance as the Paul who pretends to be educated and wealthy is incredibly affected, almost as if he learned the lines pho-ne-ti-ca-lly. No one talks like he does, and the sort of anecdotes and information he brings out is so stilted that it’s completely unbelievable. We see him later as more of his natural self, and I came to realize that this is actually quite a strong performance. He’s supposed to be that affected and artificial. It’s important that Flan and especially Ouisa can’t see through this obvious deception.
That doesn’t rescue the film entirely, tough. The children of the three couples are terrible human beings, completely self-absorbed and constantly pissed off about everything that happens around them. I’m left with the impression that none of these people are good parents or particularly wanted kids; they had them because that’s what you do, which makes Ouisa’s connection with Paul all the more important. But seriously—Dr. Fine’s son Doug (J.J. Abrams, yes that one) takes offense at every word said around him like a prima donna. They’re all like that. There’s nothing remotely pleasant or decent or likable about any of them. In fact, that’s pretty much true of every character.
Ultimately, I have a sort of grudging respect for this film, but only because by the end Ouisa won me over and I always like Donald Sutherland.
Why to watch Six Degrees of Separation: Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland.
Why not to watch: The fact that everyone is an asshole.