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With The Sterile Cuckoo, we’re in familiar territory in a lot of places. This is something like a romance, kind of. It wants to be a traditional romance and doesn’t want to be, which gives it a bit of a multiple personality, and that’s familiar. We’re also in a situation where Liza Minnelli (at this point very early in her adult career) gives a very strong performance of a very unlikable character, something she’d do even better in Cabaret a couple of years later. We’re also dipping our toes into the waters of Manic Pixie Dream Girl-dom, although it’s a bit undecided here, too, but in a good way.
Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) is heading to college in upstate New York. Waiting for the bus, he meets “Pookie” Adams (Liza Minnelli), who sometimes seems like she could use an extra “d” in her last name. Pookie is almost painfully extroverted and aggressively odd, which comes as a shock to the studious, introverted, and somewhat nerdy Jerry. On the bus, she lies to a nun so that she can end up sitting next to Jerry, and she spends the entire bus ride talking, moving from topic to topic as whim takes her. This is who Pookie is, evidently, and it’s well-established. It’s important to note here that Jerry and Pookie are headed to different schools, but schools that are relatively close to each other. This means they won’t be spending all of their time together, but are close enough that weekends are fair game.
Pookie reinforces her personality by suddenly showing up at Jerry’s college and spending the weekend with him. Quickly, and seemingly through her own force of will, the two are an item. When it comes time for them to consummate their relationship, it happens in a cheap motel room with a squeaky bed (never squeaking in earnest from what we see). This is a motel room we’ll be spending a good deal of time in over the course of the film.
The relationship between Jerry and Pookie changes a few times in significant ways. First, there is a pregnancy scare. Second is an incident at a party where Pookie gets drunk and spends far too much time with Jerry’s roommate Charlie Schumacher (Tim McIntire). It’s evident at this point (and this is more or less the beginning of the third act) that Pookie isn’t just a weird girl with strange ideas and a need to be different from everyone else—she’s damaged in a lot of ways, and desperate to do anything to save the relationship she has with Jerry.
And really, that’s what The Sterile Cuckoo is about. Sure, it’s got the Manic Pixie Dream Girl angle of the free spirit waking up the stuffy guy who doesn’t know how to deal with the world and his life. But that girl in this case is seriously damaged and doesn’t herself know how to deal with the world or life. Pookie might act like she knows the secrets of life, but she doesn’t, and it’s clear that she doesn’t, and that she’s fumbling along as much as anyone else, desperate to be needed and wanted and loved, and thus clinging as much as she can to the first person who doesn’t push her away.
I don’t consider myself the world’s biggest Liza Minnelli fan, but she manages to do something in The Sterile Cuckoo that she repeats in Cabaret: she plays a character that is unlikable in a number of ways but is still pitiable. It would be draining to spend any amount of time around Pookie Adams. She talks incessantly and jumps from topic to topic seemingly at random. She’s inappropriate much of the time, possibly as a way to make herself seem interesting and free-spirited. And yet, by the time the movie winds to a close, we’re not rotting for something bad to happen to her. We may want to shake her mercilessly just to get her to shut up, but we want to do that for her own good. In fact, Minnelli pulls of the interesting feat of making a dislikable character more likable in ways as the film progresses. Pookie is hard to take, but her mania becomes understandable, and that’s important.
No, where The Sterile Cuckoo fails more than anything is in the attempt in multiple places to make the relationship between Jerry and Pookie seem like a traditional romance. It might be today, and that might work today with the MPDG trope so much more completely established. In 1969, this wasn’t the standard, though, and the differences between these two square-peg-in-round-hole characters from the traditional romance should have been emphasized. Instead, we get lyrical interludes of them running on a beach and walking while easy listening music plays in the background. They’re not really the type for that, and it doesn’t fit at all.
There’s a lot to like here, or at least a lot to appreciate. Unfortunately, it falls down a bit in the telling, and there’s no getting over a good story inexpertly told.
Why to watch The Sterile Cuckoo: A surprising star-making performance for Liza Minnelli and an equally surprising ending.
Why not to watch: It’s too Manic Pixie to really take seriously until the end.