Using the backdrop of the swinging ‘60s, director Steve Balderson’s second collaboration (cross-reference below) with screenwriter Frankie Krainz is a thought-provoking, take-no-prisoners look at the heady times in middle class America.
Like the food that brings five childless couples together for a casserole competition, the storyline mixes together cocktail mania, heavenly hash, wife swapping (with just a pinch of husband-to-husband dalliance), sagging prudery, sexual boredom, philosophic tough love, ugly bullying and deftly spices up (or down, depending your point of view) the cinematic concoction with archival clips of early passings due to over indulgence in life’s temptations, mass murders and a lunar step that was “heard” around the world.
In very many ways (including Balderson’s hesitant, deliberately hazy cinematography) the film is all about image: how the world sees us compared with how we believe we see those around us (allowing for copious amount of denial in both cases). Tellingly, with so much booze flowing through everyone’s veins and brain cells, selective memory becomes epidemic, because if “I really did that” in the cold light of the next day, then my identity is just as fucked as those I many have played with.
Portraying the perfectly named Sugar (a little sweetener is fine, too many spoonfuls can lead to unwanted results), Susan Traylor turns in another bravura performance which works through the emotional spectrum in a compellingly honest way that others can only hope to emulate. She’s equally at home as the perfect hostess, long-suffering wife, jubilant adulterer, roll-with-it short-term “other side” or defeated spouse (climaxing in a brutal scene where she still clings to her most horrid oppressor and even wipes clean his lecherous feet). With such unabashed grit and range on display, few of her colleagues can match that skill and intensity.
Jennifer Grace comes close as the initially innocent Marybelle whose early outrage with the steamier side of adult party games begins to temper even as she blissfully ignores her man’s (Michael Maize) obvious extra-marital interest. Kevin Scott Richardson brings a readily convincing helping of creepiness to his pencil-thin moustache visage and consummate knowledge of the correct pronunciation of such conversation-stopping words such as cunt, fag and whore in his role as Sugar’s demented hubby.
The rest of the ensemble generally interacts well with one another while the bedroom heat turns up and traditional couplings venture into extra-dangerous territory.
The ‘60s soundtrack—courtesy of Rob Kleiner and Remembrance—is always at one with the action (“Try Me One Time” seems the prefect anthem; childlike bells appear just when the “kids” are in serious trouble), immeasurably assisting the flow when the dinner party guests abandon the dishes on the table and opt to feast on themselves.
The only fly in this fascinating ointment (those who lived through the sixties are bound to find many resonances; those younger might be in for the surprise that, no matter what era, humans are quite capable of letting animal desires trump societal decorum) appears in the resolution where responsibility becomes the dirtiest word in the production. Happily, we’ve all improved our behaviours since then and can honestly look back at ourselves straight at the mirror. Right? JWR