Reviewed in January 1998
Director: Alan Rudolph. Cast: Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Jonny Lee Miller, Lara Flynn Boyle. Screenplay: Alan Rudolph.

Photo © 1997 Sony Pictures Classics/Sandcastle 5 Productions
Even if Julie Christie hadn't been winning awards right and left in the weeks preceding Afterglow's release, the presence of Robert Altman as a producer would have been enough to get me interested in lining up. Both the title and the preview had a soft, succinct delicacy that appealed to me, but it turns out that what passes for winsome and tempting in a three-minute clip is only nebulous and frustrating in a full two-hour span. I might say that Afterglow is all tease if I believed that writer-director Alan Rudolph actually had some ticklish idea or warm emotion that he kept coyly concealed. Instead, the picture just seems empty, never quite sure if it means to be ironic enough, too mannered to take literally but too ridden with cliché and self-satisfaction to mean anything on any other level.

Thank God, then, that Julie Christie and her equally able costar Nick Nolte are around to give the viewer something to watch. Afterglow aims to be a sort of soft-spoken, gentle roundelay in which Nolte and Christie, playing a married couple, begin adulterous affairs with Lara Flynn Boyle (Threesome) and Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting), who are also playing a married couple. Nolte, a plumber, meets Boyle when he arrives one day to attend to her pipes. As we all know, there are two types of plumbers in the pop-culture universe: the overweight grotesques whose buttocks protrude from the tops of their pants, and the sturdy, able sex-objects, though a corollary to the Cinematic Plumber laws dictates that this second category comprises almost exclusively lesbian or bisexual women (see High Art and Bound). By the time Nolte and Boyle have first gone to bed, Afterglow has strolled its first few paces down the road to banality.

What actually transpires among the four protagonists occasionally has a supple, casual quality, as though the actors knew how little they had to work with and decided not to bore themselves. Only Miller loses the charisma present in previous cinematic outings. Boyle, a rangy young actress who has yet to find her niche, adds another appealing performance to her growing list of them, but Marianne Boyle is hardly the role that will put her over the top.

One can hardly fault either of these young turks for seeming less interesting than the senior duo of the cast, whose participation in this slender wisp of a movie suggest provocative questions of their own. Nolte, who finally seems at ease after being sprung from I Love Trouble, Mulholland Falls, and all that silly Hollywood stuff he did in his post-"Sexiest Man Alive" phase, can play hardy, genial virility as easily as Christie pulls off lambent beauty and bemused melancholy as his former-actress wife. Did Nolte, then, sign on for this by-the-numbers project just because it lacks all the frantic, nonsensical busy-ness of those earlier turkeys? Does Christie appear out of some friendly gratitude for Altman, who blessed her (and the rest of us) with McCabe & Mrs. Miller? Did it bother Nick at all that his character's honest-to-God name is Lucky Mann?

Until the two of them get saddled with a strange, Edward Albee-ish climax related to a lost daughter, Nolte and Christie essentially appear here as agreeable, limber scenery in Alan Rudolph's soggy valentine to love—and to the city of Montreal, which has never looked more gorgeous than it does here as the background for all these not-quite shenanigans. On video, the sheen of the city will no doubt diminish, but perhaps the TV is exactly the right medium for a project of such miniscule scope and direction. Afterglow made me excited to see all of these actors' next projects, even as I grew wearily impatient for this particular enterprise to conclude. Now when I hear the title, I think, "Oh, that was that long advertisement for Julie Christie's rueful smile and what Montreal looks like at dusk." D+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Julie Christie

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Christie)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Christie)

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