Object of Beauty: Starring John Malkovich and Andie MacDowell

Jake (John Malkovich), an arrogant investor from New Jersey, and Tina (Andie MacDowell), a stunning beauty from Florida, have one interest in common: pursuing their lavish lifestyle at all costs.

An elegant hustler, going from one enterprise to another, Jake has no trade; his money is now tied up in a coca crop, but he can’t get it. These two shallow Americans, traveling about Europe, are now stranded in a posh London hotel, with no money to pay the bill. Initially, they cling together because they are both hedonists, truly living for the pleasure of the moment, be it good meals or extravagant clothes. But as the film progresses, they gain some consciousness and learn some lessons.

The desperate Jake and Tina have different schemes about their only valuable art object: a Henry Moore bronze head. The statuette is a present from Tina’s first husband, to whom she is still married. Before they have time to execute their plans, however, a new chambermaid, Jenny (wonderfully played by Rudi Davis), who is hearing-impaired, steals their sculpture from their room. Soon, the panicked pair turn on each other, playing games of power and trust. The narrative contrasts the lifestyles of two couples, placed at the opposite poles of the spectrum: the shameless Jake and Tina and the working class Jenny and her punk brother.

The phallic shape of the small sculpture is used in a droll manner; Tina fondles it and is obsessed with getting it back. Tina’s attitude toward this art object differs from Jenny’s. Tina wants to sell the statuette, whereas Jenny really appreciates it; she says it bears meaning, because it speaks to her in a special way.

Although the movie is both a comedy of manners and a morality tale, it is not preachy and there are no suggestions of redemption. In fact, the film is imbued with moral ambiguity. The material is slight but highly entertaining and devious. The tone is detached, but not cold or cynical. Indeed, even though Jake and Tina are on one level useless characters, the movie refuses to judge them. At the end, the viewers are moved by their “adventures,” perhaps because of their lack of guilt.

As the alcoholic Tina, Andie MacDowell is less stiff than she was in Green Card. And while she misses a couple of good scenes, her luminous looks, crucial for the part, make up for her slight acting. She has some powerful moments, as when she is torn between her wish to settle into domesticity and her admission that she basically dislikes children. John Malkovich plays a similar role to the one he had in Dangerous Liaisons, except he is much funnier and sexier here. Malkovich has become an expert in playing nasty or vicious characters, though here he is softer and more romantic. The finely calibrated rhythm of his line delivery compensates for his lack of conventional looks as a leading man.

Filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg is best known in the U.S. as one of the directors of the TV series Brideshead Revisited, but The Object of Beauty lacks the controlled tone and muted visuals of Masterpiece Theater. Having worked in the theater, he places emphasis on the often witty and devious dialogue. His work in both London and New york may explain his knowingness about English and American class manners. Moreover he has coaxed great performances from the supporting cast. Particularly good are: Peter Riegert as Tina’s first husband, Bill Paterson as the assistant hotel manager, and Lolita Davidovich as Tina’s friend, who is used as a pawn.

If the movie were just a story about soulless, self absorbed scoundrels, it would not have engaged our attention. Jake and Tina are narcissistic and selfish, but they are curiously likeable and touching. The script, however, is not always as intelligent as the direction. For example, the exchange between Jake and Tina at the end, when she asks, “Would you call it greed” and he replies, “No, I’d call it fear,” doesn’t ring true and negates the film’s ironic tone.

Malkovich and MacDowell, who have never worked together before, prove to be a good match in this intoxicating romance.  An elegant farce, The Object of Beauty offers a meditation about self-abandonment, the fear of downward mobility, and the powerful magic of love.