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Six Degrees of Separation

Directed by Fred Schepisi. Starring Stockard Channing, Will Smith, Donald Sutherland, Mary Beth Hurt, Bruce Davison, Heather Graham, Anthony Michael Hall, Eric Thal, Richard Masur, Ian Mckellen.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 28, 1994

Despite some core ambiguities, the temporal experience of watching Six Degrees of Separation is one of absorption and intrigue. Adapted for the screen by John Guare from his own award-winning stage play, the movie also allows Stockard Channing to reprise her stage role of Ouisa Kittredge. Regarded as one of the seminal stage works of our time, the translation to screen was inevitable. Sets were fleshed out and a fantastic ensemble cast was gathered for this story of how a chance encounter reverberates in the normally unflappable lives of the liberal, upper-class society art brokers Ousia and Flan (Sutherland) Kittredge. Or maybe it's about class differences, or the fatuousness of the upper classes, or the power of the imagination, or the function of the social poses we adopt, or the story's central thesis about the six degrees of separation between people through which every person is only six people removed from every other person in the universe. Ouisa recognizes that the converse of that thought means that everyone is also equally connected and responsible for everyone else. Into the lives of the Kittredges comes Paul (Smith) who rushes into their Manhattan apartment, wounded from a mugging and claiming that he is a friend of their children and the son of Sidney Poitier. Ouisa and Flan are charmed by his social graces, intellect and cooking skills. His black skin color, of course, plays into their white liberal guilt and Paul's promise to have his famous father cast the couple in his upcoming film version of Cats thrills the couple more than they can say. Then Paul vanishes from their lives as quickly as he arrived and the Kittredges discover that Paul has pulled the same scam on others in their social circle. Despite the film's wonderful performances and vigorous camera movement, the film still feels rather stagey and unreal. Dialogue is too quick and snappy and movements feel choreographed. On the other hand, such careful orchestration fits the Kittredges well, since every aspect of their lives is a fabrication of some sort. It becomes clear that the class differences between Paul and the Kittredges is less meaningful than their similarities. Everybody hustles, only on different planes. Primarily, my problem resides with the enigma of Paul's character -- who, I think, is supposed to be enigmatic but I'm not sure about motivation-less. If Paul so wants to ingratiate himself into this new social circle, why then does he always cause himself to be ejected? Or if he's interested in upbraiding the upper classes, why isn't there more mockery or anger displayed throughout his charade? I'm not sure if this is a failing of the play, the actor, the director, or whatever, but it's a nagging perplexity at the center of this story. Yet there's so much else going on here, ideas and lines of thought that it engenders, that it's difficult not to enjoy the experiences. It's also bitingly funny.
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