The Underappreciated Comedy Of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’
Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a lot of things; an erotic thriller, a marital melodrama, and a Christmas fable but with an Illuminati orgy instead of three ghosts. It’s also very funny at times, something some audiences perhaps haven’t always fully appreciated …
In many ways, Eyes Wide Shut plays like a dark comedy more than it does a serious drama – after all, the basic formula of the story is practically a carbon copy of a teen sex comedy. Think about it: a sexually-frustrated dude jumps through a bunch of crazy hoops in order to get to a killer party where he can finally get laid? Not to mention the meta-gag of casting American heartthrob and former Risky Business star Tom Cruise as the handsome doctor who just can’t seem to get any action no matter how hard he tries.
Our protagonist’s psychosexual odyssey even begins with the type of farcical misunderstanding you’d expect to see at a dinner party thrown by Frasier Crane. Nicole Kidman’s character, Alice, accuses her husband, Bill (Cruise), of sleeping with two young women at a holiday party – in reality, he quietly slipped away to help their host revive an overdosing sex worker but is bound by secrecy. The ensuing argument leads a stoned Alice to confess that she once fantasized about leaving her family for a hunky sailor, then pushing Cruise on being oblivious to his patients’ sexual attraction to him, which comes out in a near-vaudevillian monologue.
Alice’s theory is soon borne out in another low-key hilarious scene, where Dr. Bill leaves his apartment to visit the home of an elderly patient who has just passed away, only to have his daughter Marion hit on him, claiming that she’s in love with the doc, despite the fact that A) they “barely know each other,” and B) her father’s corpse is, like, six feet away.
The punchline? Her new boyfriend, Carl, shows up, and he could easily be Dr. Bill’s clone.
Narrowly pre-dating the cringe comedy trend of the early 2000s, Dr. Bill seems to have an absurdly awkward encounter wherever he goes, and his pathetic attempts to one-up his wife’s extramarital fantasies are always embarrassingly impotent. Dr. Bill is so ridiculously lame he even starts flashing his New York State Medical Board certification as if it were Dirty Harry’s police badge.
But all the while, almost all of the people Bill encounters are super-attracted to this good-looking dummy. In one of the most overtly comedic scenes, Alan Cumming plays a hotel clerk who describes how some goons roughed up Bill’s piano-playing buddy. If this movie were a straight-up thriller, this scene would probably be one of its most calculatedly menacing – instead, Bill learns that his friend was likely abducted by members of a creepy sex cult from an earnestly flirtatious goof.
But despite all of this attention, Bill can’t ever seem to close the deal. He even pitifully tries calling up Marion, his dead patient’s daughter but hangs up when that damn Carl answers the phone.
The funnier elements of Eyes Wide Shut clearly aren’t unintentional and are actually deeply rooted in the film’s decades-spanning production history. Kubrick first became interested in adapting Eyes Wide Shut’s source material, the 1926 Arthur Schnitzler novella Dream Story, back in the late ‘60s, originally envisioning it as a low-budget, black-and-white movie starring Woody Allen as “a middle-aged Jewish doctor.” Which, um, sure would have been retroactively extremely unpleasant.
As the project continued to evolve, Kubrick clung to the idea of anchoring the film with a central performance from a comedic actor. According to Diane Johnson, the co-screenwriter of The Shining, when Kubrick talked to her about his Dream Novel adaptation, he couldn’t decide if it “was a comedy or a tragedy” and was considering casting Steve Martin as the lead (Martin, incidentally, would go on to star in another movie sexually-anxious doctor just a few years later). In the ‘80s, Kubrick’s list of candidates for the character who became Dr. Bill included famous leading men like Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, but also burgeoning comic talents like Tom Hanks and even Bill Murray.
Also in contention for the lead: Albert Brooks. Kubrick didn’t just consider Brooks for the role, he actually called him up on the phone and asked for directorial pointers. After Brooks made his second feature, Modern Romance, the low-key 1981 comedy about spiraling male insecurity, Kubrick randomly contacted him. According to Brooks, Kubrick admitted that he’d “been trying to make a movie about jealousy. Then he asked me how I did it. I couldn’t believe the guy who made 2001 was asking me how I did something. It just seemed so odd.”
In the early ‘80s, Kubrick reportedly saw the film as a “sex comedy, but with a wild and somber streak,” and enlisted the help of Dr. Strangelove co-writer Terry Southern – who, incidentally, had previously written a novel called Blue Movie, all about “a genius director concocts a big-budget Hollywood stag film” and which was dedicated to Kubrick.
Southern, who had been working at Saturday Night Live earlier in the decade, suggested to Kubrick that they “do that Strangelove thing again,” filling the movie with “outrageous lines,” which, according to Southern, would lead to “MEGA-B.O.” Southern’s draft scenes of the proto-Eyes Wide Shut made the hero a gynecologist (or as Southern put it, a “grand gyno”) which was reportedly Kubrick’s idea. And while Kubrick ultimately rejected Southern’s scenes, one did feature the couple, then named Brian and Cynthia, discussing “whether he has ever felt any attraction for any of his female patients,” which seemingly found its way into the final film.
Comedy has always been baked into the DNA of Eyes Wide Shut, it’s just a little less obvious than it could have been had it starred the guy from Ghostbusters. So really, maybe it’s time to add Eyes Wide Shut to the pantheon of holiday comedies, along with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – which, come to think of it, is also about a middle-aged guy obsessed with the prospect of infidelity.
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Top Image: Warner Bros.