Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
“For Paul, every person is a new door to a new world.”
Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Director: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Will Smith, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland
Synopsis: An affluent New York couple find their lives touched, intruded upon, and compelled by a mysterious young black man who is never quite who he says he is.
The character of Paul in Six Degrees of Separation is based on David Hampton, a young man (now dead of AIDS) who conned his way into wealthy people’s homes by claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier, and then swindled them out of money. Playwright John Guare uses the story as a springboard for a quietly savage indictment of those who live pampered lives in ivory towers, detached from the harsher realities of life and blind to their own phoniness.
The life shared by Flan (Donald Sutherland – JFK, The Hunger Games) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing) Kittredge is built upon the flimsiest of foundations. They fund their privileged lifestyle by acting as the middle men for those who wish to sell a piece of fine art and those who want to buy it. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, not unlike that of the homeless who haunt Central Park, which is overlooked by the Kittredge’s plush Fifth Avenue apartment, but on an extraordinarily lavish scale. Instead of wondering where their next meal will come from, Flan Kittredge frets over the next two million dollars.
Into their lives stumbles Paul (Will Smith – Bad Boys, Independence Day), a mysterious young black man who claims to have been stabbed by muggers in the park. He charms the couple – and their dinner guest (Ian McKellen – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Mr. Holmes), whom they were just about to touch for $2 million to part-finance their next deal – into believing he is the son of movie star Sidney Poitier, and a friend of their college-age kids. But after inviting him to spend the night, Ouisa discovers him in bed with another man, and the outraged couple insist he departs. Later, they discover that others within their social circle have also received a visit from Paul.
Six Degrees of Separation is an intellectual exercise that, intentionally or otherwise, sacrifices personal investment in its characters for the sake of an intricate inspection of class consciousness and divides. It’s beautifully written, though. In fact, the eloquence with which the film’s characters speak serves to distance them further from the real world than the luxurious apartments and exclusive restaurants in which they lead their lives. Sutherland and Channing (repeating her stage role) are sublime as the upper-class New Yorkers whose treasured Kandinsky reflects the endless conflict between chaos and control that dominates their lives. Of course, we never come close to liking this self-absorbed couple living an insular life of denial, for to do so would defeat Guare’s objective. The sheer, spoiled awfulness of their children, and those of their friends who also fell victim to Paul’s scam, reinforces this sense of the thankless emptiness of the life the couple strive so hard to maintain.
While Sutherland and Channing feast on their roles, an early big-screen performance from Will Smith is more problematic. In the first act of the movie his character charms and cons his hosts in a fake upper-class accent, but Smith’s speech patterns are curiously off-kilter. Emphasis is placed on the wrong words and the delivery is unnatural. He sounds as if he doesn’t really understand the meaning of the words he speaks and, in fact, it’s sometimes difficult for the audience to grasp the point he’s trying to make. Now, it’s possible that director Fred Schepisi instructed him to act this way to provide a clue to the fact that Paul is a con man, but the unnaturalness of Smith’s accent is noticeable enough for most people to question its authenticity, which makes one wonder why the Kittredge’s don’t. Of course, it could also be that Smith wasn’t up to the job of convincingly faking an upper-class accent. Either way, it’s a distraction that adds nothing positive to an absorbing, but ultimately dispiriting piece of work.
(Reviewed 12th January 2016)
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