The Films of Joel Schumacher

my 2018 personal Blank Check project

Cousins (1989)

written by: Stephen Metcalffe and Jean-Charles Tacchella (based on the film by...)
starring: Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini, Sean Young and William Petersen

Here's a thing I love-- second chances. Any story where characters get to try again, I lose my head over. I like all stories that allow for second chances-- time travel, groundhog day-esque time loops, reincarnation stories-- so when it comes to love and love stories, I can't get enough of what boils down to an essential rom com trope: the couple who get together, break up, and then realize their mistake and get back together again to be in love forever. Now, put lots of time between the first attempt and the second, and I'm head over heels. The traditional version of this is Jane Austen's Persuasion. But even better for me is what I call a Middle Age Romance. By which I mean, a romance between people who are middle aged or older. There is particular beauty to me about people who have lived a life apart and then find each other and have a chance at love and get to be happy. Divorcees, lonely souls, people with established lives, I want to see them finding the one person who makes their life more complete than they ever thought it could be (The African Queen comes to mind as a great example). I love older people falling in love. I love the opportunity of it, the weight of it. It's more poignant to me than teenage flings. It means more.

Cousins, Schumacher's 1989 outing, is more or less a middle aged romance. At the very least, it is a romance that stars two people in the middle of their lives (though youthfully in their 30s, I presume). It is a warm, tender love story with the patience of age, and the passion of those who know what it is to be passionless. It is hesitant in the way of people who have been burned before, then as redemptive and heroic as the greatest of epics.

A remake of 1974's Cousin Cousine, it is the story of an impossible, improbable love affair, which comes to possibility because of the warmth of the hearts of it's participants. I have not seen Cousin Cousine, a french film, but by all accounts it is lovely and wonderful, and if it's better than Cousins I certainly should see it, because I would likely love it. Anyway-- Larry (Ted Danson) and Maria (Isabella Rossellini) meet at that most romantic of events: a wedding. Larry's uncle is marrying Maria's mother, and amid the raucous festivities the two meet and talk, and the first spark of love is lit. The rub: each are married to someone else. Larry is married to Tish (Sean Young, extraordinarily lively and charming, very much like a proto-Greta Gerwig in a way I loved), an insecure, somewhat flighty young woman in need of attention and validation from others. He also has a teenage son, Mitch (Keith Coogan), and he is honestly a supportive, loving and overall great dad. Meanwhile, Maria is married to Tom (William Petersen), a pig and a jerk who can occasionally be vulnerable and sweet. They have a young daughter, Chloe. So while Larry and Maria feel a draw towards each other, and Maria is certainly charmed by Larry's very Ted-Danson-style sense of humor and kindness, they each know that nothing can come of it. The same can not be said of Tish and Tom, who end up in the bushes together at the wedding. Their tryst creates the room for Larry and Maria to meet and start to get to know each other, and the jealousy that emerges after the affair is discovered pushes Larry and Maria even closer. As Tish sobs to Tom later in the film, "They're falling in love and it's all our fault!"

Larry and Maria discover Tish and Tom's affair, and begin an affair of the heart with each other. What begins as a consoling friendship as they confront the infidelities of their partners grows into a passionate meeting of souls that turns to genuine love and affection. Larry and Maria fall in love, even as they try to pretend their bond is just friendship. There is clearly something special happening between them, and through their lunches and afternoon swims and quiet dates, time spent together theoretically to make Tom and Tish jealous. They do successfully upset Tom and Tish, but more importantly, they find kindred spirits within each other. The question is never if they love each other, but what they're going to do about it. It's all communicated through quiet, warm performances. Schumacher, in a way that's becoming familiar, allows a lot of time spent on loving close ups. Danson and Rossellini express a terrible affection through looks alone, and Schumacher creates the frame and captures the looks gorgeously and patiently.

Couched between two extravagant stylistic outings, Cousins is, on it's surface, a more sedate, traditional picture. There is very little of the outlandish color or extremes of light and shadow or showy camera moves, as in The Lost Boys or Flatliners (upcoming, my favorite movie of all time)-- but I realized watching Cousins that it's not just Schumacher's use of color that is impressive, it's actually his use of light. Cousins features some of the warmest, most gently lit scenes I've ever seen. The way he captures a sunset, a stream of light coming through Isabella Rossellini's hair, the glow of lipgloss. It's not as showy here, but it's just as effective, perhaps more so. There are moments, close ups on actors looking at each other, lit by the golden hour, that were so loving and achingly tender I wanted to cry. And sometimes I did. Of course there is the occasional hot neon lighting that glows up a scene, and I'm not going to complain about that. It's beautiful. Maybe no one knows how to use neon lights better than Schumacher (get outa here Nicolas Winding-Refn, I don't want you).

But Schumacher knows his genres, and knows how to play in the appropriate sandbox. He isn't cracking out the bright pink neons very often because they don't really suit the gentle story he's telling. The tense thrills of The Lost Boys are matched by his showy camera work and punk-rock lighting. The farcical comedy of The Incredible Shrinking Woman are matched by his use of soft pastels and playful performances. So too with Cousins. This is a capital-R Romance, and it is with utter grace and accomplishment that Schumacher films a movie that looks as Romantic as it's subject matter is. 

Cousins has an astounding score by Angelo Badalamenti, sweeping and entrancing. It's one of the highlights of the film. Then there's the thoughtful use of costumes (which, of course, as always, Schumacher has beautifully curated). Maria wears long, flowing skirts in gentle beiges, wide trousers and flats; these are simple, elegant outfits. Larry wears similar handsome, comfortable clothes. He teaches dance in trousers and sweaters. They match each other. Meanwhile, Tom and Tish are so chic, so crisp and sharply pressed. Tish wears these gorgeous, extravagant dresses. When she puts on eyeshadow, she's straight out of Blade Runner (it was so easy for me to forget that this Sean Young was the same Sean Young as in that iconic movie, where I have always found her stiff and uninteresting. Here she's so warm and funny and bubbly! I loved her! Justice for Sean Young!!). Characters are tied together in gentle, subtle ways. It's skillful and delicate, and subtle.

The film takes place in Vancouver, or at least it filmed there, but it just as easily could have been Italy or San Francisco, or France. Everything has a rosy view. Even the extras are romantically shown and affectionately shot. Truly, I've never seen a director who spent so much time on the faces of extras as Schumacher does. But all of this builds the scene. The city scenes are busy and bustling, but not overwhelming. Exactly in the way you'd want a city to be. The countryside is mountainous and calm and crisp. Everything is beautiful. When Larry and Maria ride off into the countryside to consummate their slow-burn love affair, they ride on Larry's motorcycle against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, rippling lakes, and lush, green fields. The cabin they stay in is cozy and cluttered. They make love by a fire and their skin glows. A moment: Ted Danson in bed, warm and handsome, lit by the fire and surrounded by dark woods, looking out at Isabella Rossellini, wrapped in a light quilt, sitting on the edge of the porch as the sun comes up, cool and refreshing. Her hair tucked behind her ear. They look at each other. They smile. There is an astounding amount of aching love in their expressions. My heart soars. It's so simple and yet so artfully achieved. It's one of the most beautiful, romantic moments I've ever seen. 

Cousins then is a sweeping romance of the highest order, played out in the smallest world. This is a drama of two people, and their spouses, and their children. Two families. The only thing at stake is happiness. But the patina of the film lends serious gravitas to the proceedings. I was reminded of Intermezzo, where Leslie Howard leaves his family for Ingrid Bergman, a woman he truly loves, only to return when his children prove more important than his happiness. I was worried that Cousins was going to follow the same narrative track, so imagine my relief when it doesn't. The nice thing in Cousins is that no one has to choose their children over their love. Maria and Tom attempt to keep their unhappy marriage afloat for a while, for Chloe's sake, only for Maria to realize that what Chloe really needs isn't biology, it's love. She, and Maria, deserve more than a bargain. Even Tish winds up better for all this romantic drama-- she comes to love herself on her own terms, as her career thrives and she embraces herself, separate from the men in her life. She comes to validate herself, and I was so, so happy for her. Happiness prevails! Love wins! 

The final little scene of the movie, after a beautiful sequence at a wedding (one of three (!!) in the movie), where dancing becomes a metaphor for being in love forever, Maria and Larry do what they said they'd do-- open a restaurant somewhere near the water, someplace where you can put up a sign that says "Gone Sailing" whenever you want. They put up the sign. They go sailing away into the sunset together. And it's not just them, on that beautiful boat on a beautiful lake. It's also Chloe and Mitch. Love for each other and love for their children is in no way mutually exclusive. Remarkable and utterly lovely, and I cried in joy and relief. Love is expansive. Love has room for your past, and all the time you've spent being in love with someone else, too. Love is warm and rosy and tender, and it should be. I adore a movie that looks at love without cynicism, and that's what Cousins does.

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The only real issue for me was the pacing, which I'm tempted to call patient but is actually just somewhat slow, and the occasional jarring tonal shift. From the warmth and beauty of the romance plot, we go screeching to shenanigans with Mitch and Larry's father, or to tense melodrama between Tom and Tish. Those tonal shifts undercut the rich, sensuous romance and somewhat unbalance the film. Trimmed a little to be a smoother central plot and less surrounding fluff, with differently presented secondary plots, and you'd have a tight 100 minutes of the most intimate romantic developments. But there's absolutely more to like than to complain about. When I sat down to watch Cousins, I thought it would be a romantic comedy, something sortof silly and cheesy, given the DVD art and the inclusion of Ted Danson. It was a deeply pleasant surprise to find myself to utterly moved, engaged and heart-warmed. For me, this one feels like the sort of like a film I'd love to just pop on in the background while doing chores on a wintery day. It's warm, it's heart-felt, it's cozy. There's something divine about a movie that doesn't try to be anything more than that.

Overall:  ★ ★ ★ ★

Schumacherness: ★ ★ ★

Up next: Flatliners (1990)