The New Age

Lawrence Russell

The New Age (1994) writ. and dir. Michael Tolkin cine. John Campbell music Mark Mothersbaugh star. Peter Weller (Peter), Judy Davis (Catherine), Patrick Bauchan (Jean), Adam West ("Dad"), Samuel L. Jackson

Think of yourself as a three-figure ad-man with a good looking wife (who has her own business) and a modernist mansion on an L.A. ridge filled with trendy modern art and the psycho-babble of your trendy New Age friends... or think of yourself as a good looking wife (who has her own business) with a three-figure ad-man for a husband etc. It's a story of a couple lost in the material dream of contemporary California who seek New Age solutions to their economic and spiritual malaise. Sound familiar?

So one day the yuppy ad-man quits his job in a petulance, although you get the impression the impulse is vanity, that in fact he was steered into redundancy by his boss. The good-looking yuppy wife loses a major account, so both members of this "marriage" bottom out on the same day. The ad-man relieves his tension by screwing his mistress, the good-looking wife relieves hers by going on a shopping spree. They converge in their modernist mansion, relieve more tension by screwing, then by throwing a party for their New Age friends. It's a progression of denial, one which others are quick to notice and exploit.

Catherine (Judy Davis) abandons her own party with a goateed bistro owner, steps out on her husband Peter for the first time. Peter (Peter Weller) meanwhile floats among the guests in the flakey inconclusive way that good-looking flakes do. His father (Adam West) sums it up when Peter plays a Bach fragment on the piano: "Doesn't the world know that's the only piece you play?" Peter laughs, presses a button on a concealed digital controller, and the piano kicks in by itself.

While it isn't a major line of development in the story, Peter appears as the failing version of his father. Dad also lives in a canyon ridge mansion and is also a Lothario. But while his generation succeeded, Peter's is left with a collapsing economy and the spiritual vultures who arrive to feed on the shrapnel.

They open a clothing store called Hypocrisy, which does o.k. the first month but quickly fails, buried in the irony of its own hipness and outrageous prices. Like much of L.A. and popular culture in general, the attempt is to sell attitude rather than substance, space rather than content. Meanwhile they continue to see their lovers, although Catherine's relationship is reactionary and she remains troubled, another dependency freak who relies on gurus and the promise of an easy solution. It's all fake mysticism, euthanasia, and games. The female group leader is a bald asexual lady who looks like Aleister Crowley, another bells-and-candles occultist who fills the gap between the priest and the shrink, the pimp and the undertaker. Her male counterpart is a Belgian "spiritual teacher" called Jean Levy, another sensitive big on free verse improvs and coded solutions -- like Leary without the L.S.D., Manson without the murder.

Jean: To be born human and not a snake is a tremendous opportunity...

No doubt. Meanwhile their infidelities continue like a chess game, the moves always initiated by Peter. He tries his hand at telemarketing, the group led by another kind of hustler (a nicely played cameo by Samuel L. Jackson) although Peter doesn't seem to have the stomach for conning old ladies. They sell their paintings, furniture... next step, the house -- now an empty shell like their marriage. Catherine, finally moved by yet another infidelity by Peter, stages their suicide by serving poisoned margaritas... the candles burn, the digital phantom plays the piano, they are dressed as if for their wedding. But it's another game, although Peter believes it's for real.

Peter: (awakening) What's this?

Catherine: A divorce.

You last see her working in an eyeglass store, arranging designer sunglasses on a display shelf. Peter? He becomes a sales guru in telemarketing. The movie ends with his motivational speech to some new recruits: "In China the word for crisis is the same as the word for opportunity -- did you know that?"

The film is funny in a low-keyed self-ironic way and is probably quite accurate in its portrayal of a social group too hip to be real. It's difficult to feel sympathy for these spoiled losers and their friends, and perhaps this makes the action a bit flat. Sometimes it's difficult to follow the action, i.e. did Catherine's goateed lover die? If so, how, why? There seems to be missing scenes. But as a social study of death by materialism and rebirth by economic evangelism, it's quite interesting.

© LR 28/6/99


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