The Accidental Tourist (1988)
From my most watched best picture nominee of 1988 to the one I don’t think I ever watched all the way through, The Accidental Tourist is a puzzler of a nominee. Based on the award winning novel of the same name from 80’s hotshot Anne Tyler (her novel Breathing Lessons won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in fiction after two previous finalist placements in the category), this romantic comedy/melodrama from Lawrence Kasdan (writer Star Wars V-VIII, Raiders of the Lost Ark; writer-director The Big Chill) swung at populist romanticism without landing any major impact. Opening with travel advice from the guidebook writing grieving father Macon (William Hurt), the film declares itself as a morbid look into a family separated by the loss of a child. When Macon’s wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner) leaves her emotional vacant husband, he begins a downward spiral of misfortune that lands him injured with his quirky siblings and kinda infatuated with enigmatic dog trainer Muriel (Geena Davis) who inserts herself into the gaping hole in his life. The film has not aged well.
William Hurt, losing all that momentum from his Oscar nominated trio of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, and Broadcast News, is flatter than usual. Clearly depressed, there’s one note throughout the entire film. Not quite the showcase, and maybe that’s how Tyler wrote it, but his foolish stumbling through all of his relationship is unbecoming of a romanticly depressed lead. Macon opens quoting his own travel advice “Always bring a book; it’s a protection from strangers.” William Hurt’s grieving father with disobedient dog problems is swallowed by the women around him. Muriel, the alpha, loves her dogs, and Davis imposes the character from her first moment. The pixie fairy girl of the late 80s, Davis was the young love interest with a few juicy scenes, but her appeal loses intrigue quickly. The real pleasure was the dependably moody eyed Kathleen Turner. Given the fleeing wife returning to reclaim what she left–a recipe that won Meryl her first statue–her role was a great opportunity to sell the corrupting nature of her role.
Quietly vicious and sweeping in for her grand remounting, Kathleen Turner evokes Lauren Bacall. Though second billed, shas far less screen time than Davis but eats up her every opportunity. From unhappy wife to Thoroughly Separated Millie, Turner is her usual perfection. Swap lead with supporting and Davis’s category fraud can’t stand up to that powerhouse quintet. Turner tackles divorce with a gentle ease under her secret intentions. Her behavior brings torment for the still lonely Macon, but she found distance to be necessary. She draws him back home on her own terms, and it’s stunningly stern and sensual. His reaction is expectedly Macon.
There’s an distinct morbidity to the whole affair. The yo-yo love triangle, the fragile egos, the loss of a child. The movie is so heavy with disappointing behavior it’s no wonder the drama attracted awards attention. The empty-headed romanticism and lack of joy in the characters has certain unhealthy shlock factor to it. I wonder how it topped Who Framed Roger Rabbit, A Fish Called Wanda (best director), The Last Temptation of Christ (best director), or Gorillas in the Mist for the top prize? Maybe it’s just an 80s thing, but it wasn’t anything I’d recommend: the morals or the movie. Even John WIlliams’ sweeping, overzealous ending ovations and piano rotations peppered throughout could surface the sense of Macon’s recovery from emptiness. It’s a puzzler to the popularity of the film.