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CARNAL KNOWLEDGE(director: Mike Nichols; screenwriter: Jules Feiffer; cinematographer: Giuseppe Rotunno; editor: Sam O’Steen; cast: Jack Nicholson (Jonathan Fuerst), Candice Bergen (Susan), Art Garfunkel (Sandy), Ann-Margret (Bobbie), Rita Moreno (Louise), Cynthia O’Neal (Cindy), Carol Kane (Jennifer); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Mike Nichols; Criterion Collection, The; 1971)
“A pretentious and uneven provocative moralistic adult drama about coping with the “sexual revolution” among the middle-class males.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pretentious and uneven provocative moralistic adult drama about coping with the “sexual revolution” among the middle-class males. Its parts are better than its whole. Mike Nichols (“Wolf”/”Closer”/”Heartburn”) directs with a touch of theatricality from a Jules Feiffer episodic script that’s a minefield of confessional material that mixes together in its blender sexual fantasies and the reality of psychological hang-ups. Not a deep probe of sexual politics, but interesting enough to hold my attention in a carnal way. Unfortunately its heartfelt critique is weighed down by its apparent self-consciousness that has it skating on thin ice trying to say something new about male-female relationships in the modern day’s changing political arena.

Jonathan Fuerst and Sandy (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) are opposite personality roommates at Amherst College during the late 1940s and their life is followed from their youthful school days through the next twenty years of their embittered middle age. Both characters are wrestling with identity problems and sexual conflicts. The brassy manipulative misogynist Jonathan can’t commit himself to a warm intimate relationship, while the sensitive Sandy has issues over feeling insecure. Both men while in college have pined after the classy Dream Girl coed, Susan (Candice Bergen), but the weaker Sandy wins her and she becomes his wife because she didn’t think he could take rejection.

Ten years after college, Sandy is in a rut as a bored married suburbanite with his bitchy wife; while Jonathan plays the field and has a stormy relationship with the depressed and vulnerable sexpot Bobbie (Ann-Margret), keeping her at bay by his bullying tactics and utter contempt yet holding out a chance for domesticity.

The story will pickup some twenty years after college in the 1970s and the jaded middle-aged boys have now taken up with new mates, with the wealthy twisted lawyer Jonathan bitterly complaining about paying alimony to ex-wife Bobbie and seeing a prostitute named Louise (Rita Moreno) to act out his women hating fantasies; while Sandy is a successful medical doctor, looking ridiculous in hippie garb and espousing “free love” as he tries desperately to recapture his lost youth by chasing after the 18-year-old Jennifer (Carol Kane, her film debut). A lot of luster has gone out of their long hard road to find themselves, as it ends with a revolting Jonathan showing-off to Sandy and their new mates by presenting a slide-show lecture on his conquests.

It’s a cynical, offensive and depressing but well-acted film tracing the unsatisfactory love life of the two contrasting privileged males from the post-World War II period to the sexual revolution of the sixties. Unfortunately it has little more to say than what meets the eye–as the sexual attitudes expressed reflect the male sexual dysfunction despite the changing times calling for more openness between the sexes and the men proving that they are incapable of reaching their inner being to communicate with a woman. Which is certainly true for the men depicted in this pic, but all the poison darts thrown about by cartoon satirist Feiffer and former improv comedian Nichols in their witty barbed dialogue are for the most part off target to hit much more than a phony sexist or male chauvinist or one faced with waning virility.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”