Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Quirk Without The Connection: Why I’m Ambivalent To Harold And Maude.

The Good: Fun and interesting characters, Good themes, Good music
The Bad: Overbearing soundtrack, Bland performances, Somewhat obvious/unimpressive plot progression.
The Basics: As much as I wanted to like Harold And Maude, the quirky comedy/drama just failed to land, despite feeling more original than most movies today (or since its release!).

I am not, in all honestly, a fan of old movies. I generally only seek them out when they are noteworthy, like when I did my Best Picture Project (check that out here!). Indeed, the Best Picture Project was the only reason I would subject myself to Tom Jones (reviewed here!). But, when my wife insisted I would like Harold And Maude and that I must watch it with her, I dropped everything and did just that. While I can see the merit of Harold And Maude, I found the concept to be much more engaging than the execution.

Harold And Maude is rich in concept, barely adequate on performance; audacious in its unconventional character relationship, entirely underdeveloped in the same. While the soundtrack by Cat Stevens fits the film perfectly, it blares and plays as the centerpiece of scenes instead of complimenting the characters on screen and their activities. At the heart of Harold And Maude is the relationship between the socially-awkward, death-obsessed Harold and the old woman Maude and while they could have an intriguing “Odd Couple” style relationship or a May to December thing, most of the movie is spent with them just paling around and the viewer is left wondering why Harold actually lets Maude in. So, while there is sensible character development, their coming together seems entirely forced; there are no episodes or interactions that land the idea that Harold would open up to Maude and form the relationship/attachment that he does.

Harold is a young man (supposedly nineteen, looks about twelve) who tries using staged suicide attempts to get his mother’s attention. While legitimately morbid, he does not actually try killing himself, he just creates elaborate bloody scenes for his mother to walk in on in the hopes that she will stop and actually pay attention to him. Harold is obsessed with death and he hangs out at funerals. It is at a funeral that he meets Maude, a seventy-nine year-old woman who talks about her life nearing its end, despite not having anything demonstrably wrong with her health.

So, despite Harold’s mother loathing the idea, Harold and Maude begin hanging out. Maude has Harold help in stealing vehicles and trees to return them to the forest and she introduces him to different teas, foods, and works of art. Harold is intrigued. But soon, his relationship with Maude is threatened from within and without. On the outside, Harold’s mother tries to hook Harold up using a computer dating service and enlists him into the army with the help of Uncle Victor. Within their relationship, Maude continues to posit that eighty years is enough time for life and Harold struggles with what that might mean for them.

Unfortunately, Harold And Maude’s disparate elements seldom come together in a satisfying way. While the opening scene, which has Harold hanged in his mother’s house is instantly intriguing and engaging, the film meanders from that point on. Delightfully quirky scenes, like Harold playing at being homicidal to alienate himself with the one-armed Uncle Victor is hilarious, but it distracts from taking time on-screen to actually develop the relationship between Harold and Maude.

In a similar fashion, the relationship between the title characters never truly pops. Instead, Harold and Maude hang out, but they don’t seem to genuinely connect much at all. Maude shows Harold a lot of stuff, but they spend a surprisingly little time on-screen conversing about deeper things. So, the relationship hardly pushes the envelope in a way that is either scandalous or even really all that interesting. As a result, the film’s ultimate resolution seems more melodramatic than earned and that was frustrating to one promised a truly original movie.

On the acting front, the leads Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon fail to sell the premise as they have absolutely no on-screen chemistry. Indeed, Bud Cort had more screen presence in his few seconds of performance in Dogma (reviewed here!) than he did in the ninety-one minutes of Harold And Maude. Gordon is fine as Maude, but she plays the playful crone with a vitality that makes it unfathomable that her character would want to spend time with the morose and bland Harold. In fact, the only thing Harold seems to expend effort doing is making other people uncomfortable so they might leave him alone, so Gordon’s playful smile seems insufficient to win the boy over.

Ultimately, Harold And Maude begs for a rewrite and a more audacious modern interpretation. The themes are strong and universal, but this old film just doesn’t make them resonate.

For other works with Tom Skerritt, please check out my reviews of:
Revolution Road
Cheers - Season 6


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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