Starring Isabella Rossellini, Ted Danson, Sean Young, and William Petersen
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
A beautiful little romance about a couple who bond when their spouses have an affair.
Cousins tells the story of two cousins by marriage, Larry (Ted Danson) and Maria (Isabella Rossellini), who, suspecting their spouses, Tish (Sean Young) and Tom (William Petersen), are having an affair, embark on a friendship that threatens to overturn the family harmony. When Larry and Maria realize that they are more in love with each other than with their spouses, they’re forced to decide whether to have an affair or end the relationship that has brought happiness back into their lives.
The film is structured around family occasions. Larry and Maria meet at a family wedding and forge a connection while they are forced to wait for their spouses who are off cuckolding them. When they meet later to discuss their faithless spouses, they find that they enjoy spending time with each other. They also discover that their spouses do not appreciate their newfound friendship. In the beginning, they have fun teasing Tish and Tom with the possibility that they might be having an affair. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Tish becomes upset at a family dinner, and Maria comforts her and apologizes for the joke she and Larry have been playing. Tish looks up at her in awe of her kindness, as if Tish realizes for the first time that the affair she’s having with Tom might be hurting someone. Larry and Maria determine to end their friendship, but family gatherings keep throwing them together.
The plot of the film is not elaborate. Two well-meaning people meet and fall in love, and they have to choose whether to indulge their own desires or to repress those desires for the needs of others. The two illicit couples reflect the conflict of selfishness versus selflessness. Tish and Tom are each selfish in their relationships, seeing the fulfilment of their own desires as the way to happiness. Larry and Maria, on the other hand, always consider how their decisions affect other people. Yet, their self-denial proves unfulfilling as well. The film wisely shows that, in this situation, no course of action can avoid hurting someone.
This movie is a rare remake that improves upon the original. The French original, Cousin, Cousine, was popular when it came out in 1975 and garnered three Oscar nominations (original screenplay, actress, and foreign language film). However, the uninspired direction by Jean-Charles Tacchella—much of the film plays out in static two-shots—allows the film to lag. With Cousins, Joel Schumacher employs a much more fluid, cinematic style, augmented by beautiful cinematography by Ralf Bode. The film glows with incandescent pastels, and even the dark scenes have an evocative luminosity. Cousins is a scene-for-scene remake and, yet, it comes off as far more vital and lovely than the original.
The film is essentially a character piece, largely dependent on the success of the performances. In the French version, Marie-Christine Barrault displays an intelligence and quiet dignity. Here, Isabella Rossellini fully realizes those qualities as well and adds to them a sense of wonder and delight that viewers might not even realize was missing from Barrault’s Oscar-nominated performance. Rossellini is radiant here, and it’s a shame that this movie didn’t lead to a bigger career for her. Ted Danson, as the happy-go-lucky, underachieving Larry, presents just the right rakish charm for the role. Sean Young is ideally cast as the insecure, troubled Tish. William Petersen manages to be the perfect level of sleazy—he’s enough of a jerk that the viewers don’t mind that his wife’s affections are being turned elsewhere but not so much of one that we think badly of her for marrying him in the first place. (Coincidentally, Danson went on to replace Petersen many years later as the lead on CSI.)
Lloyd Bridges, as Danson’s father, and Keith Coogan, as Danson’s son, provide enough humorous asides to freshen the narrative, but the comedy in the film remains gentle, added with a deft, light touch that’s too often missing in contemporary films.
I welcome the gentleness with which the film was made. Nothing is maudlin or over-the-top. The film doesn’t feel the need to bludgeon the audience to have an effect. It’s a quiet, beautiful little love story, highlighted by Angelo Badalamenti’s poignant score. Romances aren’t often given credit for being worthy of serious regard, unless they’re set against the background of a war or a genocide or something else that gives them gravitas. However, this film, despite lacking gravity and urgency, reflects a level of artistry worthy of appreciation.