The New Age (1994)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Tolkin

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If there had never been a California, Michael Tolkin would have had to invent it. Tolkin, a talented novelist and filmmaker, has made a specialty of exploring the particular kind of lost souls that emanate from the balmy, windblown clime of Southern California. He especially likes to take on the self-important pretensions of the rich and bored. The Player (1992) showed up the arrogance of privilege in a particularly satisfying way, as Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi wallowed in the mud bath of a desert spa like two contemptible pigs. You might even say that he showed contempt for the privileges God arbitrarily offered and withheld in The Rapture (1991).

The New Age takes a slightly different tack by having a privileged couple, Peter and Katherine Witner (Peter Weller and Judy Davis), serve as the instruments of their own destruction. Katherine, a graphic designer with her own business, “fires” her biggest client for nonpayment, deletes all his electronic files, and then goes on a shopping spree. Peter, who has been screwing up at a CAA-like talent agency, spontaneously quits his job when he is brought under fire at a board meeting and goes off to meet Alison (Paula Marshall), his mistress. When the Witners meet up back at their exquisitely appointed mansion and learn of each other’s financially disastrous follies, what do they decide to do? Throw a party. “We haven’t had one in weeks,” Peter laments.

The party puts the Witners in contact with Jean Levy, a French (“Belgian, actually”) self-help guru (Patrick Bauchau, Vic in The Rapture) who seems to have anticipated Twitter with his pithy, vague exhortations to “Live the Question” and other New Age falderall. Jean’s disciple Ellen (Susan Traylor) buzzes close to Peter, arousing Katherine’s suspicions, but her cheat-o-meter goes into high gear when she spies Peter and Alison talking, though they lied to her about having just met when Alison shows up unexpectedly as the date of an invited guest. In retaliation, Katherine leaves the party with Misha (Bruce Ramsay), an attractive, young coffee-shop owner, and becomes an adulterer for the first time. Shortly thereafter, she suggests a trial separation, one in which she and Peter share the house but not the bedroom; Katherine seems to have abandoned her business and has insufficient finances to move out. Alison and Misha both move in, and Peter and Katherine carry on their dalliances while opening and running a high-end clothing store together after Levy suggests that their next move should be something that involves their greatest talents—talking and shopping.

The New Age is quite funny in the way it shows what impresses people like the Witners and their set. Jean speaks French, so he must be at the vanguard of something authentic. Katherine also seeks help from Sarah (Rachel Rosenthal), a spiritualist who must be the real deal because she’s old, dresses like a wealthy hippie, and shaves her head, but Katherine confesses in frustration that she cannot feel the vibes of the universe the other women in her drum circle do. Katherine’s pain at her husband’s serial infidelities, her failed business and slowly failing clothing store, and the betrayal of her friends is difficult to watch. She sells a $400 belt to her friend Anna (Patricia Heaton), oblivious to Anna’s reluctance to buy it, and later finds out Anna is throwing a party to which she and Peter are not invited. Anna bluntly says she doesn’t want to deal with Katherine and Peter’s problems; “I have to be honest,” she says when she no longer has the option to lie by omission. Later, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the coming of the Apocalypse in The Rapture, Peter, Ellen and several others go to a “sacred place” in the desert and get caught up in a dust storm. As the assembled scurry for cover, Katherine stumbles upon Peter and Ellen kissing passionately at the base of a rock. Katherine, who admits she only cares about looking cool (“but I’m working on it”), is more afflicted by others than inflicting. Her businesses legitimately dry up, and she faces the reality of surviving and making better choices.

Peter isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic a character. Despite being poorly fathered by a hypercritical, rejecting father (Adam West) who gives him a $10,000 check to help him keep his home and business afloat and then cancels the check first thing the next day, Peter actively turns into someone he himself despises. Telemarketers, whom he loathes as lying parasites, plague him throughout the movie until he is so desperate that he begs one for a job. When he hoodwinks an elderly florist (Audra Lindley) out of $150, his boss (Samuel L. Jackson) declares him to be “a man.” This “validation” is an indictment of Peter and Katherine’s entire way of life—selling image rather than substance to corrupt people like themselves—and by extension, the lack of substance that, in 1994, was making overvalued or nonworking elites wealthy and quietly destroying the economy for real workers, who were being laid off in droves and replaced by cheaper labor in other countries. Katherine ends up doing what she is truly interested in doing with her talent for style, and Peter, though offered high-paying work back in show biz, descends into self-loathing and acts on the outside what he has always been on the inside, choosing to follow in his surrogate father’s footsteps as a telemarketer.

In the panel discussion after the film, Tolkin said it really shook him up to watch the film, that it was more personal than he remembered. He said the point of the film was to explore what a man is supposed to be in this society. When questioned about his attraction to religion, he admitted that he sees religion as all psychology, and that belief is an expression of character that he can’t explore in the abstract. Therefore, he does not caricature belief systems, though the spirituality in this film certainly skirts that line.

Tolkin revealed that he didn’t agree with Judy Davis when they were making the film, but stands in awe of her skill and recognizes after seeing the film again that her choices were dead right. A funny line in the film comes when Peter sits down to play the piano—Fauré—and he is asked to play something else by a guest who has heard him play this piece numerous times. “It’s the only song I can play,” says Peter, and indeed, it is the only piece Peter Weller could play on a piano at the time.

Tolkin offered his different takes on being a novelist and a filmmaker, and on being a screenwriter and a director of his own work. Humorously, when asked what he thought of the film, he said, “The writer was really angry with the director, and the director threw the writer off the set.”

Although this film takes place in 1994, its mention of an economic meltdown makes it timely. “I’m always right about the economy,” said Tolkin about his social commentary over the years. He also suggested that the film had some documentary qualities to it, that he likes to film real people being themselves. At one point, Peter is taken to an S&M orgy. Tolkin said the people at the party, including the two women who invite him to take his pants off and join them in a threesome, were real members of the scene. While this part of the movie seemed a little tacked on, it was a fascinating scene reminiscent of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut; the entire film has quite a few echoes with Kubrick’s film, though somewhat surprisingly, Kubrick’s is more hopeful.

The New Age captures a moment and place in time with breadth and deadly accuracy. Despite its moments of humor, the film is not really fun. But it is wise in its wariness, and another small gem from a talented writer and director.

Q&A with Michael Tolkin

  • Tinky spoke:
    23rd/04/2010 to 1:10 pm

    Hmm … do you think the economic downturn parallel was why it was chosen for the festival? I’ll definitely have to look for this. I’m a big Judy Davis fan…….

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/04/2010 to 1:29 pm

    I really don’t know. I’ll ask Roger when I see him. Davis is fantastic in this.

  • Greg F spoke:
    23rd/04/2010 to 3:32 pm

    I think Judy Davis is fantastic is just about everything, including playing Judy Garland in that made for tv movie. I love this movie and now I can’t wait to see it again. Maybe I’ll watch it next week.

    When I first saw it, my friend and I had a place we were sharing and working two jobs each to make ends meet. And the same two jobs believe it or not. Our day job was at a custom tee-shirt call center and our night job was cold calling people for an insurance company to get their business. I got it on tape as soon as it was released and we must’ve watched the telemarketing scene 100 times. Lines like, “Don’t you wish you’d become a doctor” had us laughing so as not to cry. We had a contempt for our existence then that made the movie feel personal to us. And still does.

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