Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice features four great leads, but it’s those latter two – Ted and Alice (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon) that steal the show. This is a hard film to pull off because it’s so talky, but it’s hilarious and meaningful (and very groovily ’60s).
The film really rests on the credibility of the intro scene where Bob (a very cocky Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) attend a weekend group therapy session complete with tai chi, very little sleep, and outpourings of emotions designed to bring them closer together and more in touch with their sexuality. The scene is close to comical, but you get the sense that Mazursky wants to ride that satirical line throughout the film. It’s risky because we don’t know Bob and Carol before but need to believe that their lives have been dramatically altered. The opening all feels a bit exploitive and like current reality TV: put a group of strangers together, deprive them of sleep, and watch the drama play. I think if we look back at the opening scene following the closing shots we’d see that Mazursky feels the same way.
But Mazursky also really plays (hams) up the opening scene to provide a contrast to the well-designed life that Ted and Alice lead. The real strength of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice are the many long scenes that either start tense and evolve into comedy, or vice versa. The best of those is between Ted and Alice, just after they’ve learned some critical sexual information about their friends. Mazursky stages a long scene in their bedroom that begins with marital strife and moves into hilarity (with Gould’s great line: “I wish I had a dog so I could take him for a walk!”)-
The climactic scene of the film is also expertly staged. Mazursky feels a bit like a Rafelson to me in his blocking – both like to move the characters a lot, use the full space, and stage with characters in the background:
This scene does the reverse: it begins uncomfortably funny and evolves into something rather poignant. The best part of it is the crosscut between Ted’s hygiene in the bathroom and the slow-motion fun of the other three:
It’s a pretty nice summation of the opposing lives the two couples have led, and also the last time that Mazursky really pushes the extremes of boring suburbia vs. idealized sexual bliss. And Gould is just so damn good at being awkward!
I love the scene between Alice and her therapist. It’s not only her squirming discomfort, but also his easy posture (with which his delivery of “vagina” is all the more funny) and her really probing, learning direct eyeline:
Mazursky has a nicely staged fantasy (that perhaps, turns into reality), beautifully executed in the absolute ease of both characters, one of whom is thoughtlessly stripping on an airplane-
-and also an ending that feels like it may have inspired the close of Force Majeure:
Impeccable casting notwithstanding, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is so great because Mazursky begins his film as farce, moves it into unease (another reason I think the Östlund comparisons are apt), and ends it with love, without ever really mocking the characters. They all get their say, have agency, make their own decisions, and have scenes on their own.