Friday, May 4, 2007
This is the second in an occasional series of blog posts about my favorite movie endings. This time I'd like to talk about The Accidental Tourist (1988). The movie begins with the collapse of a marriage between Macon and Sarah Leary (played by William Hurt and Kathleen Turner), following the tragic death of their child. Crushed by her son's passing, Sarah leaves Macon to confront an empty house (with the exception of his troubled dog) and the ghosts of the past. Strangely enough, this lonely life of quiet solitude and joyless routine suits Macon perfectly. After all, he is a travel writer who caters to people just like him, those who want to pass through places with a minimum of friction. Macon tells his readers where they can find Americanized lodging and cuisine anywhere in the world; he helps these solitary travelers maintain perceptual bubbles filled only with safe places and scripted encounters. In one flashback scene, his editor summarizes the concept: "While armchair travelers dream of going places, traveling armchairs dream of staying put" (a quote that illustrates a key aspect of omnitopia, a concept I'm developing into a book). Even when Macon spends time with his brothers and sister, he experiences the same kind of cocoon, for they too are frightened of the outside world and have locked themselves into a regimented (but delightfully quirky) enclave. Macon plans to live this way without any thought of an alternative, never quite smiling, never quite crying, never quite experiencing anything at all.
This plan, domestic anesthesia punctuated by travels to nodes of the same continuum, works well enough -- until he meets Muriel Pritchett (played by Geena Davis). Macon hires Muriel to train his dog who has become neurotic since the collapse of the family. Macon expects a professional exchange of fees for services and desires no other interaction. While his life is clean, ordered, and friction-free, hers is a mess. Any connection with her would therefore demand a commitment to all the complexities of her life: her sickly child, her wreck of a car, her financial strains. Such an excursion away from his itinerary is unacceptable. And yet Muriel attracts Macon with her warmth, her humor, and her persistence. Despite his reserve and despite the risks, Macon enters a romantic relationship with Muriel. It's not quite love, but it is commitment. At first, their affair seems to add something to Macon's life. He even smiles now and again, but only in an ironic or bemused way. He is still a detached traveler through life, picking up a souvenir now and again but never allowing a meaningful connection to the places and people he visits.
The final third of the movie brings one new surprise: Sarah returns. She has regained her equilibrium and now promises a renewal of the couple's old habits: continuity, stability, dependability. Macon does not love Sarah, but he does miss what she represents. So he abandons Muriel and returns to his marriage. Soon enough they succeed in their plan, recreating their old lives. Macon takes on a new commission, revising a travel guide for people who want to pass through Paris without getting stuck in "foreign entanglements." But Muriel will not let go easily. She borrows some money and flies to Paris in search of Macon, hoping to rekindle their romance. The Accidental Tourist's conclusion is best discovered (or watched again) by you. Suffice it to say that both women want Macon, and both offer him something important. Sarah promises the continuation of old and comforting habits. Muriel represents the unknown life of awkward encounters and odd surprises. At the very end of the film, Macon spots one of his two lovers on a street in Paris. He is taking a cab to the airport, but he sees the woman hailing a cab also, and he tells his driver to stop. She doesn't see him at first, but soon their eyes meet. Her expression is a rapid transformation from shock to joy. But his transformation is even more vivid. For, at last, Macon smiles, an honest and loving smile that seems to surprise him as much as it delights her. As the scene fades, you cannot help but imagine: He's never smiled like that before.
Visit IMDB's post on The Accidental Tourist