The Morning After

(Sidney Lumet, USA, 1986)


The Morning After is the type of certified “quality” drama that presumes to have a grip on your heart and soul from the first frame. Bad presumption! It’s the kind of bleeding-heart movie whose most blatant and calculated desire is to win an Oscar (it was duly nominated). It’s as full of formula as any so-called “genre film”, but pretends not to be – rather, it offers itself as realistic, authentic, moving, indeed gut-wrenching.


It certainly wrenched my gut, but in a way it probably did not intend. The Morning After tries to be both a contemporary thriller and a film of liberal, social conscience – addressing, in turn, the problems of alcoholism (and surviving it), race relations, and class conflict. In the end, it fails to be successfully either just a good story, or a film with an urgent message.


It stars promisingly enough, at the “morning after” of its title, with a hung-over Alex (Jane Fonda) waking up next to an unfortunately dead one-night-stand. Did she kill him? Who, in fact, was he in the first place? The booze just won’t let her remember (just as the film won’t let us forget a single, heavy-handed detail) – and so we may be in for a twisty plot resonating with problems of individual and social identity, in the vein of William Friedkin’s great Cruising (1980), or even (in a comedy mode) Susan Seidelman’s terrific Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).


Alas, The Morning After, like Jagged Edge (1985), cops out and goes very soft – while Fonda grimaces and yells histrionically in search of that coveted Oscar. The film pits the spoilt and snobbish Alex against Turner (Jeff Bridges), a guy who is the very salt of the earth – a very Bridges role. He’s always a delight to watch perform, but his role here is a sorry one: exaggeratedly caring in a roughneck, reality-principled way.


Naturally, since this is what John Flaus once called a “liberal fantasy massage” movie in which everyone must learn a deep, human lesson, Turner has one minor flaw that he eventually overcomes – I am referring to his blue-collar racism – and spills one revelation that provides the film with its big, tear-jerking moment: yes, he, too, was once (and therefore will always be) an alcoholic. It doesn’t count for much, in dramatic terms.


Weaving in and out of all these smarmy manoeuvres is the trace of the film’s own “subtle” racial stereotyping and scapegoating – all of which is foisted onto the handy character of Joaquin (Raúl Juliá). But Lumet’s film – like a previous vehicle for Juliá, the atrocious Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) – is one that, on the surface, declares it can embrace all racial and sexual differences, all imaginable lifestyles, all political preferences. That’s the classic liberal declaration: underneath it, the same old conservatism, and the same old exclusions, are always at work.


Come to think of it, liberal-minded film criticism works in pretty much the same way.

MORE Lumet: Close to Eden, Guilty as Sin, Night Falls on Manhattan, Power, Prince of the City, 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe

© Adrian Martin December 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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