American Pie
Produced by Universal Pictures
Directed by Paul Weitz
Screenplay by Adam Herz
Released by Universal Pictures

Summer of Sam
Produced by 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks and Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli
Released by Buena Vista Pictures

Eyes Wide Shut
Produced by Warner Bros., Hobby Films, and Pole Star
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by Frederic Raphael and Stanley Kubrick
from Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story
Released by Warner Bros.

Oedipus reigns once more at our neighborhood movie theaters, at least in his Freudian guise. In Hollywood’s most recent calumny of hormonally disturbed adolescence, American Pie, he turns up as a high-school senior, a beefy mouth-breather suitably played by Jason Biggs. When this lad’s mom bakes him an apple pie, he can’t resist having his manly way with it. Needless to say, his father discovers him at the kitchen counter in flagrante delicto. Whoa! Talk about your Sophoclean irony! And then there’s this other kid? He, like, gets seduced by his friend’s drunken mother? On a pool table? Major, man, major, loo bad they didn’t, like, include some eye-gouging expiation. I mean, like, that would’ve been really cool. And maybe a chick hanging herself, too, by her bra or something? Hey, like, why not? Can’t figure out those prude dudes at the MPAA giving this film an R rating. I mean, like, do they really want to deprive our youth of a light-hearted introduction to one of our most enduring classics?

Far more portentously but perhaps just as inanely, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam includes its own dose of Oedipal angst. Putatively concerned with the infamous “Son of Sam” murderer, David Berkowitz, and his 1977 New York City killing spree, Lee’s new film seems far more interested in the fortunes of a young Italian with a Madonna/whore fixation.

Vinny (John Leguizamo, poorly cast) is a Bronx hairdresser who feels compelled to cheat on his young wife. It’s not that he doesn’t love her. He does. That’s just it. She’s too pure for what he has in mind. He can be a tiger with her cousin in the backseat of his car, but he can’t bed his wife without squirming in uncontrollable remorse. Wherefore all this guilt? Spike Lee knows. Look at all those closeups of crucifixes and Virgin Mary statues. Catholicism strikes again, thwarting yet another sex life. Hey, Spike, time to get some perspective, no? Check out those classics. That Vinny is unable to reconcile women’s sexual and maternal identities, that he’s devastated to discover they exist in a natural continuum—all this has a long, long history. His problem reveals a profound but hardly invincible ignorance of the moral theology of the Church to which he nominally belongs. If he had paid any attention at all to Brother Augustine John in the tenth grade, he might have learned that intercourse and motherhood are—gasp!—supposed to go together.

What has all this to do with the Son of Sam? I can only guess, but with the wav Lee cuts back and forth between re-creations of the blood-spattered Son of Sam shootings and the neon-spangled disco clubs Vinny haunts, I’d have to say he is trying to hang disco on Berkowitz along with the murders. Seems plausible. Who can doubt that the disco craze sprang from a madman’s mind?

At some point during this haphazard project, Lee must have realized he had a turkey on his hands. You can sense his desperation as he swings his camera right, left, up, down, and diagonally, feverishly trying to impart some ersatz excitement to his shapeless story about aimless people pursuing pointless lives. Even more desperately, he tries to lay some sociological heft on the proceedings by bringing in veteran New York journalist Jimmy Breslin, who, some will remember, wrote a tabloid book about Berkowitz. At the beginning and end, Breslin faces the camera and intones that there are eight million stories in the big city, and this is one of them. Based on Lee’s film, I’d say the other 7,999,999 are more compelling.

While Lee has been routinely overpraised, there’s no denying he has made some interesting films. This, however, is not one of them. With Summer of Sam, he seems to have tripped over his own swollen accolades. The Greeks called it hubris.

The late Stanley Kubrick (he died four days after finishing Eyes Wide Shut) may have suffered from the same affliction. If so, he had far greater warrant Take his magisterial 2001; A Space Odyssey. Thirty-one years after its release, it remains the benchmark of science-fiction filmmaking. Nothing else comes close to its poetic meditation on our cosmic destiny.

Although Kubrick’s technical cleverness sometimes overwhelmed his thematic intentions, his films were always visually arresting. Even the misconceived Barry Lyndon is worth watching, if only for its scenery. And Kubrick never sought to flatter his audience with market-tested subject matter. If he had, he would not have made Eyes Wide Shut, a film that deliberately mocks fashionable contemporary sexual attitudes at every turn. It dares to assume that, in matters of both the heart and loins, men and women are fundamentally different and that the perennial misunderstandings between them are not socially constructed but biologically determined. How’s that for sailing into the wind?

Kubrick takes on nothing less than the perennial contradictions that bedevil our lives, the conflicting claims of reason and impulse, society and individuality, order and energy, to say nothing of those forces of nature, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.

And so the big question: Is the much ballyhooed Kidman-Cruise-Kubrick collaboration worth seeing? I must answer with a qualified “yes.” It’s not a great film, not even a very good one. It’s often silly, and many will find it offensive in parts. There’s much nudity and some brief sexual activity. (All this looks almost chaste by today’s film norms.) If you do decide to see it and you’re a Y chromosomer, you should bring a womanly companion as your guide. The ladies will get this film a lot quicker than those of us suffering from X deficiency, which explains why I’m much indebted to my wife’s observations and insights in what follows.

The film’s silliness stems from its subject: erotic desire. Passion routinely turns even the most sensible silly, in the original sense of the word. It can render us so blissfully unaware of reality that, in its throes, we’re ready to risk social position, economic security, and honor itself It’s our common, if blessedly intermittent, malady. Only a few unfortunates can hope to escape its imperious sway through the course of an ordinary lifetime. Trying to limn the absurdities of sexual passion, Kubrick’s film often becomes ridiculous itself It’s missing the one ingredient that might have rescued it from its folly, an ingredient that Kubrick, for all his satirical wit, seems to have lacked: a generous comedic sense.

Still, there is no gainsaying this film’s staying power. Like many of Kubrick’s other films, it’s an intricately overwound clockwork of codes and symbols that goes on subversively ticking in the mind long after watching it. My wife and I left the theater laughing at its pretensions—and they are many—only to find ourselves discussing it into the night and the next day. It also led us to read Kubrick’s source. For his screenplay, he had Frederic Raphael adapt Dream Story, the brilliant 1926 novella by Viennese writer and physician Arthur Schnitzler.

One can see why Kubrick was drawn to Schnitzler’s story. Its fluid, dreamlike narrative seems made for the camera. Ironically, it also has a charming comedic vision conspicuously lacking in the resulting film. Schnitzler tells of a young, happily married bourgeois couple, Fridolin and Alberfina, who suddenly find themselves at serious odds. Upon returning from a party one night, they begin to tease one another about their respective flirtations with other guests. Soon, she grows angry with him. He takes it all lightly, assuming it’s his male prerogative to find other women attractive as long as he doesn’t actually stray. This, of course, is what women have traditionally held against men: The beasts don’t take sexual attraction seriously enough. And, worse, they arrogantly assume women take it all too seriously. “Oh, if you men knew,” she pouts. By way of example, she summons up a memory of a naval officer she saw while they were vacationing in Denmark. He had glanced at her in the hotel lobby, nothing more, but had he approached her, she declares, she would have given herself to him at the risk of losing Fridolin and their daughter. If this sounds contradictory, it is. Passion rarely waits on logic. Alberdna’s “confession” troubles Fridolin, but he takes it in stride. He recognizes it for what it is: a momentary fantasy from the past dredged up to spite his male self-assurance. But then she tells him something really unsettling: She would have slept with him, Fridolin, before they married, had he said the right word at the right moment. This rings true, and he takes it to be an assault on their union itself Yes, things could be like that before the Great War, when this story takes place. For obvious historical reasons, this second affront to Fridolin’s male presumption doesn’t appear in the film.

Following this marital spat, Fridolin finds himself unmoored from his world of certainties. As soon as he steps out of his now-troubled home, his chaste, reasonable existence fades from view. He finds the ordinary world transformed, fairly teeming with indiscriminate lust. Women, familiar and strange, offer themselves to him as he embarks on an hallucinatory night journey into the darker recesses of his mind. The novella has the structure and atmosphere of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dream tales, most notably “young Goodman Brown.” It is meant to be both unsettling and humorous, subversively calling into question the easy assumptions of our rationally shaped day-lit world. But like Hawthorne, Schnitzler leaves no doubt that returning to the social construction of reality is both necessary and desirable, provided we come back with a strengthened self-awareness.

Kubrick follows Schnitzler’s story closely, but he does so with a solemn literal-mindedness that blurs many of its intentions. Where Schnitzler suggests, Kubrick explains. Take, for instance, the weird, erotic masquerade featured in both text and film. In Dream Story, its actuality is left uncertain because it’s meant as a metaphor of psychosexual tensions. Kubrick, however, goes so far as to add new characters to give the episode a substantial reality it cannot bear.

Worse, Kubrick gets the point of the masquerade wrong. In Schnitzler’s tale, when Fridolin first arrives, he is dazzled by a roomful of women wearing nothing but masks. It’s the pure male fantasy: the prospect of endless, anonymous, no-fault sex. But he feels thwarted by the other men in attendance. They are of a higher class, and their official status somehow permits them to be at ease in these unusual circumstances. They are free to dance with the naked lovelies while Fridolin holds back. He is intimidated until one of the women comes to his side to warn him he is in danger. He is at once taken with her and naively assumes she desires him as much as he does her. When she continues to warn him of his danger and points out she is risking her life to do so, he grows concerned and wants to protect her. With the shorthand logic of dreams, Schnitzler weaves a version of Freud’s Oedipal dilemma. Fridolin is the boy attracted to the maternal woman, but his access to her is blocked by men with power and position —paternal authority, in other words. Much, if not all, of this is lost in the film, where Kubrick preoccupies himself with showing us naked bodies in close-up and some scenes of simulated sex from a discreet distance. This gives poor Cruise (Fridolin Americanized as Bill Harford) little to do but wander about awkwardly encumbered by a laughable cape-and-mask get-up. But there is no voyeurism in Schnitzler’s story, nor any visible sexual activity either, however much Fridolin would like to indulge himself Schnitzler’s narrative focuses on the struggle we all have as social beings: what to do with our unseemly passions in the face of propriety.

The film’s intertwining verbal and visual codes underscore the point that, when misused, sexual desire breeds fantasies that gull us all. At the Christmas party that begins the narrative, two cuties latch onto Bill, apparently intent on leading him into a sexual encounter. Before he breaks away from them, he asks where they intend to take him. They answer, “To the end of the rainbow.” Later, Bill visits a shop called Rainbow Fashions to rent the disguise he needs to gain admission to the masquerade. The pursuit of passion for its own sake is like trying to reach the end of the rainbow. It’s a hopeless, finally dispiriting quest.

The film concludes mischievously. Bill asks Alice (Nicole Kidman in the Albertina role and, surprisingly, quite good) what they should do about their disturbing experiences of the previous night. Doing so, he signals his submission to her maternal influence. Alice answers nearly word-for-word as Albertina does: “I think we ought to be grateful that we have come unharmed out of all our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream. . , . We’re awake now,” she concludes. With evident relief, he responds, “Forever.” She demurs, however. Whether wisely or coyly, it’s difficult to say. Perhaps both at once, for a tiny smile of feminine intrigue flickers on Kidman’s face. Instead of pledging words, she tells him they must act as soon as possible. When he looks perplexed, she helpfully explains. Using the blunt Anglo-Saxon term, she tells him they must make love. However fleeting, it’s the surest seal to their contract in passion and responsibility.

And that, folks, is life: a tenuous, unstable balance of the body’s imperatives and the soul’s commitments. As Oedipus discovered, there are no easy answers to the human mystery. Most, however, would find his resignation on this count a bit extreme. After all, he rendered his eyes wide shut permanently.