Among the countless contributions Roger Ebert made to film criticism, the Kevin Kline Mustache Principle may not rank highest, but it has provided a lasting and extremely helpful lens for recognizing one actor’s intentions. Put simply: In movies where accomplished stage and film performer Kevin Kline sports some kind of facial hair, he signals that he is playing comedy. In movies where he is clean-shaven, he is usually serious. It’s not iron clad, but even the exceptions tend to prove the rule: When Kline appears clean-shaven in the comedies Fierce Creatures and Wild Wild West, he balances the scales by taking on dual roles in both movies, allowing him to have his beard and shave it, too.
The Kevin Kline Mustache Principle is the simplest way to convey the eclecticism of Kline’s films with his most frequent collaborator, director and writer Lawrence Kasdan. Across six movies and three decades, Kline appears both clean-shaven and mustachioed as Kasdan directs him in comedies, dramas, and several movies that fall somewhere in between (and also one Western). Yet even when frequently paired with a thoughtful and talented filmmaker, and blessed with his own exceptional talent, Kline never quite sustained a career as a full-fledged studio-movie leading man (despite several good-to-great comedies, many of them hits). His movies with Kasdan sometimes hint at how and why not.
Kline first worked with Kasdan as part of the ensemble of The Big Chill, sort of a baby boomer mission statement of defiance, confusion, ennui, and, above all, self-reflection, which is to say self-obsession. Seen today by non-boomer eyes, it’s less insufferable than it sounds, which makes it something of a minor miracle. Though Kasdan’s writing is often witty and observant, a major reason the movie works as well as it does is its cast, and Kline brings a particularly delicate touch to the role of Harold Cooper, who hosts his college friends at a vacation house in South Carolina, where their mutual friend Alex has just killed himself.
Kasdan made another ensemble dramedy with Grand Canyon, skewing more dramatic and philosophical. It seems like the kind of movie that ought to have followed The Big Chill by a decade or two, so it’s a little surprising to realize it came out a mere eight years later. Kline plays Mack, a privileged Los Angeles lawyer who strikes up a friendship with tow-truck driver Simon (Danny Glover) after Simon defuses a potentially violent situation in a sketchy part of the city, where Mack’s car has broken down.
Intentionally or not, Kasdan turns Kline’s handsome (and clean-shaven) visage into the face of white diffidence, as Mack struggles with how to repay Simon and also how to cope with the dangers, cruelties, and inequities of today’s (which is to say, 1991’s) modern world. After making a definitive baby boomer ennui movie, it follows that Kasdan would try to top it with a definitive Los Angeles ennui movie, and while that seems like narrower and less relatable territory (especially coming from a Hollywood filmmaker), it does at least broaden the movie’s socioeconomic scope. At its best, Grand Canyon, which gives a lot of its minor characters bigger moments than the story strictly requires, has the feel of a short story collection. It predated Robert Altman’s Raymond Carver adaptation Short Cuts by a couple of years, and is vastly inferior to it, but it has moments that could earn a favorable comparison.
Kline gives good performances in both The Big Chill and Grand Canyon. He doesn’t over-emote, and his natural likability makes both characters more palatable than they should be. But in casting Kline as his designated Head Everyboomer, Kasdan tamps down his star’s manic charisma and opens him up to the kind of scorn often received by gentle and well-meaning but clueless and pampered white guys. Without facial hair, Kline looks more dashing, but also (especially in Kasdan’s movies) softer and more pained. In Grand Canyon, Kasdan and Kline are both at their best when they’re able to root the filmmaker’s sometimes painfully earnest soul-searching in a scene with more concrete goals, like one where Mack gives his teenage son a tense driving lesson.
Not all of Kasdan’s films attempt to make generational statements. In the ’90s, he repeatedly veered into lighter comedy, and his first such foray, I Love You To Death, also functions as a kind of unofficial follow-up to Kline’s Oscar-winning work in A Fish Called Wanda. And just as Fierce Creatures, Kline’s eventual re-teaming with that movie’s cast, suffered by comparison to one of the funniest comedies ever made, I Love You To Death suffers a little as a Kline showcase compared to his masterful, insane, pitch-perfect performance in Wanda (his Oscar for which remains, all these years later, one of the most satisfying wins this side of Marisa Tomei).
As unfair as the comparison is, there are unavoidable connections. It’s not just that Kline boasts a mustache not unlike the one he wears as Wanda’s Otto. There’s also the fact that Italian-American Joey actually speaks the same language that Otto mangles for Wanda’s pleasure in the earlier film. Like Otto, Joey is kind of a heel, albeit with far less idiotic bravado. Many of Otto’s movements have a hilariously unearned grandiosity, while Joey preens on a smaller, more human scale: Kasdan observes him in front of a mirror in his pizza-shop uniform, sucking Crest directly from the tube to freshen up before a date. Though I Love You To Death is a farce wherein Joey’s wife Rosalie (Tracey Ullman) discovers his infidelity and haphazardly plans to kill him with the help of some deeply incompetent would-be hit men, it’s a squishier, sweeter farce than Wanda.
Kasdan’s gentleness makes for a surprisingly humanistic and sweet-natured black comedy, but not exactly a crackling one. Though he eventually cedes laughs to fellow Big Chill alum William Hurt, well paired with a young Keanu Reeves, Kline is the cast member best-suited to the movie’s genteel loopiness, even as it requires less force than his very best comic roles. When Rosalie attempts to murder Joey by overdosing him with sleeping pills, his apparent death throes include cuddliness and a desire to start a game of Monopoly, and Kline has fun with the character’s physical and mental discombobulation.
Kline is a very funny performer, and can be an ace line-deliverer, whether spitting out a zinger or a malapropism (garbled speech plays a part in a number of his comedies, like Soapdish and In & Out, both of which are funnier than any of his movies with Kasdan). But a lot of his comedy is physical, and while this sometimes means calling upon his energized theatricality, Kline is also an expert modulator of movement. In I Love You To Death, he could go bigger and more slapstick, but conveys Joey’s deteriorating faculties with a lightness that makes his condition both airy and grounded; he really does look like he could pass out or drop dead at any moment. Kasdan, too, moves with grace: Early in the movie, he introduces most of his main characters in a series of short but well-choreographed pans around Joey’s pizza parlor.
I Love You To Death is the closest Kasdan comes to using Kline the way other broad comedies use him. More often, he drops the actor into less zany environs and lets him feel his way through his new surroundings. This is particularly true for a meditative picture like Grand Canyon, but it applies to Kasdan’s comic work, too. After Death, for example (and the failure of Wyatt Earp), he got into the romantic-comedy business, and in 1995 that meant getting into the Meg Ryan business. Watched today, French Kiss feels like a check box for non-Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan pairings: Sure, try out Kevin Kline, right between Tim Robbins and Matthew Broderick. On paper, Kline sounds like a great match for Ryan (at least more so than Robbins or Broderick): an agile, slippery charmer playing against her girl-next-door neuroses.
In the movie itself, it doesn’t quite come off. Kline dutifully affixes his comedy mustache and semi-comic French accent, and he can’t help but throw a Kline-esque curve on some of his lines. Wistfully recalling the prostitute who took his virginity, he recalls: “She was… not beautiful,” and he’s so adept with the tone of his pause that the surprise insult doesn’t sound the least bit regretful. And Kasdan, directing someone else’s script, brings a basic level of craft that many later, coarser rom-coms could not master (at least, not before studios abruptly gave up on them a few years ago).
In both Death and Kiss, Kline is playing with European caricatures—the lusty buffoon of an Italian and the rude, blunt-spoken Frenchman. He uses his facial hair as the front for light parodies of international masculinity, while his clean-shaven American parts for Kasdan take a sincere look at baby boomers through the years. Pitched uncomfortably between that kind of generational check-in and small-scale relationship comedy, Darling Companion marks, for Kasdan, the second part of the crummiest one-two punch this side of Rob Reiner. Following a horrifically misguided adaptation of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher that mercifully spared Kline from its clutches, Darling Companion is about a bickering married couple looking for their lost dog. That’s it. That’s the story of a 105-minute movie starring Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, and a dog.
Added to the minimalism of this premise is an excruciatingly protracted setup that makes the audience privy to post-wedding conversations about who is driving who to the airport in what feels like agonizing real time, as well as micro-budget veterans Duplass and Moss. Given all of these elements, it might be safe to assume that Kasdan and his co-writer wife Meg Kasdan (who also worked with him on Grand Canyon) intended a kind of Boomer take on mumblecore, paying attention to life’s quotidian details that other movies depict only in passing, if at all. If Kasdan’s intention was to evoke the beauty and pain of everyday life, he failed. For that matter, if he wanted only to make a marital comedy with the natural pairing of Kline and Keaton (the Meg Ryan of the previous generation), he failed. And if his intention was to make a watchable movie at all, he failed at that as well.
Taken on its own, Kline’s performance as Joe, aloof surgeon and neglectful husband to Beth (Keaton), makes sense on the continuum of self-absorption established by his characters in Chill and Canyon. Beth has fixated on a dog she rescued from the side of the freeway in part because Joe doesn’t often provide the full support she requires, distracted by his career and limited by his lack of “emotional intelligence,” as another character puts it. (Much of Darling Companion feels like a bizarre attempt to adapt intro-level psychology and/or communication textbooks into drama, somehow.) Kline certainly plays a recognizable type here—flummoxed by sensitivity, cranky over others’ lack of intelligence, beating back fear of aging—but Kasdan erases any nuance by so broadly telegraphing (or sometimes outright stating) the problems in Joe and Beth’s marriage, before sending them out on an adventure too thin to hold up the oppressive weight of their many relationship clichés.
Kline does his dutiful best, but even the mild slapstick that Kasdan has in store fails to take advantage of the actor’s physical gifts. A scene where Joe falls down a steep hill and dislocates his shoulder puts the actual pratfall off screen and in the dark, then mixes clumsy attempts at shtick with genuine trauma in a long, unblinking take. This torturous scene is the movie in miniature: It’s unpleasant, but not insightfully so. It tries for notes of both relatable humor and seriousness, and mixes them together into a thick paste. It pays close attention to something not worth examining in such workmanlike detail. Rather than concluding a loose trilogy of baby boomer check-ins, Darling Companion is up there with the worst pop culture ever inflicted on the world by boomers, alongside the Eagles and retrospectives about the Eagles.
In between his comedies, dramas, and dramedies, Kasdan has dabbled in pulpier genres, often with better success than his more outwardly humanistic efforts. Kline was not involved in Kasdan’s forays into space (co-writing a number of Star Wars movies), swashbuckling adventure (writing Raiders Of The Lost Ark), noir (writing and directing Body Heat), or batshit stupid sci-fi horror (just Dreamcatcher, unless you also count Darling Companion in this genre). But he did have a place in Kasdan’s 1985 Western Silverado. Kline plays a laconic semi-hero—not a badass, exactly, but an even-tempered quick-draw sorta-outlaw. He’s introduced when a fellow drifter (played by a more traditionally grizzly Scott Glenn) comes upon him in the desert, lying unconscious in his long underwear. They join up with Kevin Costner (playing Kline’s brother) and Danny Glover and participate in a series of appealingly old-fashioned (if sometimes protracted) showdowns.
At the time, this character was not necessarily against type, because the Kevin Kline comic type wasn’t yet established on film (further evidence: his bushy, non-comedic beard). His other foray into the Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld’s much-loathed (but sort of compelling, in its dopey way) Wild Wild West, assigns Kline shtick that looks a bit like what a confused Hollywood executive might assume Kline does well without seeing his movies: tweedy, innuendo-laden, with a moderate amount of cross-dressing (he knows those Monty Python guys, right?). In Silverado, made before any such pre-conceptions could set in, he’s relaxed and low-key, a bit more thoughtful than the average cowboy, but still able to defeat Brian Dennehy in a gunfight.
It’s not surprising that Kline hasn’t had the opportunity to show off these skills more often, not least because relatively few Westerns were made during the prime of his career. (Kasdan did one more, but he brought Costner along instead of Kline, and the result was Wyatt Earp). But it does indicate how good Kline can be outside of the dramedy confines that both suit his skills as an actor and sometimes box him in. His films with Kasdan show off his range, but only occasionally touch upon his strange genius.
Next time: An ’80s teenager comes back as a character actor and good-luck charm.