Before he directed Batman movies and “The Phantom of the Opera” film, Joel Schumacher remade a 1975 French comedy called “Cousin Cousine”. He had found success directing “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “The Lost Boys” (1987). Very often, his films are vividly lit and grandly staged, very theatrical. Which makes 1989’s “Cousins” even more rare. This gem is shot with a beautiful calmness, lush and lovely, but focuses more on the characters at the heart of the story, and worried less about their backgrounds. Still, most of the action takes place during ritualized family weddings and a funeral, so there are moments of 80’s glitz and glamor.
The actors are perfectly matched to their roles. Larry (Ted Danson) is a good-natured dreamer who attends his uncle’s wedding. He is now cousins-by-marriage to pensive Maria (Isabella Rossellini, luminous as ever), the daughter of Larry’s uncle’s new bride. At the wedding, Maria’s unfaithful husband (William Peterson) begins a sexual affair with Larry’s insecure wife (Sean Young). Reeling from the revelation, Larry and Maria lead their cheating spouses to believe they are also beginning an affair. Things get complicated as true love blooms.
I had the good fortune of re-watching this 80’s favorite and was surprised to see that the film lost none of its charms. I remember seeing it several times at theaters upon its original release. Unlike most other silly rom-com tropes, the actors are allowed to act like adults here and play fully-formed characters. Beautiful people who happen to be insecure, like Peterson and Young, openly embark on an affair, seeming to ignore the harm they are about to cause. Danson and Rossellini are allowed to feel hurt and angry, even while denying their own feelings as they spend more time with each other. People get their feelings hurt in this film, and that’s a reality very often glossed over in other, less adroit romance films. Also, people learn they just don’t love each other any more. And that’s okay. Very grown-up. More realistic to me. William Peterson (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), hot off success in “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985) and “Manhunter” (1986), is so handsome, but such a weasel. Any woman would be flattered by his attention and bedroom eyes. Sean Young, hot of success in “Blade Runner” (1982) and “No Way Out” (1987), has never been more lovely or fragile. Her keen ability to portray Tish’s inner fears helps endear her to us, instead of turning her into a common bimbo. She also exhibits great comedic timing, when exploding on Danson or Peterson in emotional outbursts, and later gathering her inner strength to handle the more dramatic moments. Peterson’s unfaithful Tom and Tish are both likeable characters in their own right, with their own fears and dreams, who happen to make bad choices. Just like real people.
Ted Danson had already appeared in “Body Heat” (1981), “Creepshow” (1982), and “Three Men and a Baby” (1987). In 1982, he’d become a household name on “Cheers”. He perfectly conveys heartbreak at losing Tish, even while reconciling himself to move on without her, before he actively pursues Maria. This is one of the only films that has the balls to show a male character go through these stages, even if they happen almost simultaneously here. Danson’s scenes with Young are as heartfelt and truthful as they are with Maria. And to the film’s credit, he doesn’t fully consummate his passions with Maria till the last half of the film.
Another stand-out in the cast is Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!) as Larry’s father. He swoops into the film and steals almost every scene he appears in, with some of the funniest lines! (At a cemetery, declining to join the funeral group, he says: “At my age, you don’t want to get too close to an open grave.” His delivery is priceless.)
!”This film made a star of Isabella Rossellini, herself the daughter of Swedish actress/icon Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini. I remember her fondly as the exclusive spokesmodel for the French cosmetics brand Lancôme in 1982. She proved to be an actress equal to her mother in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986), as a frail nightclub singer tortured by a maniac. David Lynch was about to film his cult-classic series “Twin Peaks” (1990) and wanted to cast Isabella in a lead role that later went to Joan Chen (Josie Packard). Here, Isabella shines, illuminating the screen every time she appears. She is a steel magnolia who holds her own and makes no excuses, even as it hurts her to follow her heart and embark on true love. It is Rossellini’s Maria that Danson and then the audience falls in love with. As the luscious, operatic score by Angelo Badalmenti (Twin Peaks) swells, so do our own hearts, in hopes for the happiest ending, ever-after. I adore the love theme waltz heard throughout the film. Despite critics at the time giving it mixed reviews, “Cousins” remains (5 out of 5 stars) to me! Ain’t LOVE grand? (Cue the music and “Dance with me!”)