One Night Stand

(Mike Figgis, USA, 1997)


As someone who publicly dissented on the general valorisation of Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas (1995), I was not terribly favourably disposed towards the prospect of seeing his subsequent effort, One Night Stand.

After a paddle in the low-life shallows of alcoholism and prostitution, Figgis here returns to a milieu that, judging from his previous work, is more familiar to him: supermodels, dancers, TV ad directors, even a stray, glamorous rocket scientist.

Figgis firmly places himself within dramatic terrain that is these days ascribed, rather unkindly, to the bourgeois novel: infidelity, marital breakdown and intimations of mortality among the members of the leisured middle-class. On a brief trip to New York, Max (Wesley Snipes) attempts to rekindle his lost friendship with Charlie (Robert Downey Jr.), a flamboyant gay who is struggling with the spectre of AIDS.

What Max did not anticipate is the sudden, fleeting presence in his life of Karen (Nastassja Kinski). Events hurl these two married people into a one-night stand that seems to stun them both with its power and tenderness. But they return immediately to their less than wonderful daily lives.

Where Karen's husband Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan) is a stolid, dull, professional type, Max's wife Mimi (Ming-Na Wen) is noisy and bossy – particularly (as a hilarious scene shows) in bed.

The plot seems strangely discombobulated until Figgis reveals the ultimate destination of these various strands. Max races to Charlie's side in his hospital death bed – only to discover that Vernon is his brother. Confronted once more with Karen in this impossibly tense and desperate situation, Max must face his own future. And so, as it turns out, must every other character.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Figgis' typical style and sensibility repulse me. His films place the viewer right inside a dated yuppie nightmare: the world looks like a slick deodorant commercial and sounds like a bad jazz combo. Figgis also has the unerring ability to reduce classic dramatic moments – such as the moment when people first become romantically attracted to each other – to the most mechanical and inauthentic of clichés.

One Night Stand is full of terrible, phoney material of this kind. Yet, miraculously, the interweaving of Max's and Karen's one-night stand and its consequences with the slow disintegration of Charlie manages to triumph over the dross. Perhaps this is because, in these scenes, Figgis manages for once to drop his misty camera filters and overbearing saxophone riffs, simply concentrating instead on the expressions of his actors.

Performance-wise, Figgis' films are always uncomfortable smorgasbords. Amidst all the pointless celebrity cameos, overheated stylistic tricks and general air of speciousness, the actors (as in Woody Allen's films) must fend for themselves, with inevitably mixed results. Here, MacLachlan and Wen are hobbled with poor roles while Snipes, clearly ill at ease, struggles with moments of improvisation and into-camera address.

While Kinski fares best in the central quadrangle, the film really belongs to Downey. After an inauspicious opening scene – where he postures as a supposedly visionary choreographer and baits the hapless Snipes with such lines as "are you out yet?" – he hits his stride. Downey lends dignity to the spectacle of dying and gives certain unlikely scenes – such as one where he awakes to find Max and Karen smooching near his bed – complete credibility.

Even Charlie's homilies about the ultimate meaning of life are made palatable – and in a Mike Figgis film, that is a true achievement.

MORE Figgis: Time Code

© Adrian Martin April 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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