**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Blake Edwards

Written by Dale Launer

Starring Bruce Willis, Kim Basinger, John Larroquette, William Daniels, George Coe, Mark Blum, Phil Hartman, Stephanie Faracy, and Graham Stark.

Blake Edwards’s last few films — The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Micki and Maude (1984), A Fine Mess, and That’s Life! (both 1986) — have been problematic works for his admirers. Replete with his familiar themes of sexual identity and gender confusion, the need to adapt in order to survive a hostile world, and the contemplation of mortality (implicit in all of Edwards’s movies but explored at length in The Man Who Loved Women and That’s Life!), these recent films have been rigorous and personal, uncompromising and challenging in their unpredictable shifts of narrative tone and formal style. Edwards has paid a commercial price for these movies, however; the audiences that flocked to the Pink Panther movies and 10 have begun to desert him. Perhaps sensing this, the director has now made an all-out effort to regain his defectors. Blind Date is the result, and far from being an artistic cop-out, it’s easily the most assured and likable Blake Edwards movie since Victor/Victoria (1982). Indeed, this well-oiled mixture of farce, slapstick, and comedy of manners navigates more boldly across the wide, wide screen than any of the director’s films since S.O.B. (1981).

Television superstar Bruce Willis’s appearance in the film is not only a shrewd box office calculation, it’s also one of the most felicitous revelations of the year. Willis, in this one role, assumes his rightful place alongside Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, and James Garner as one of the definitive Edwards protagonists, an initially anal-retentive personality who must continually adapt and modify his behavior and points of view as he wanders through the plot’s escalating complexities. Cast as Walter Davis, a rising young executive at a financial management firm, Willis is immediately characterized, in the titles sequence, by Edwards and scenarist Dale Launer as an overcompensating workaholic, an upwardly mobile yuppie who still keeps his electric guitar (significantly, the first image of the film) propped against the wall of his study like an objet d’art.

The story is set in motion when Walter, desperate for a date to escort to an important client dinner, decides that his sister-in-law’s cousin Nadia Gates (Kim Basinger), sight unseen, is an adequate choice. When his brother Ted (Phil Hartman) repeats his wife’s warning not to get Nadia drunk (because “she gets all crazy”), Walter responds with a mixture of impatience and curiosity. In the sublimely romantic scene where the two meet for the first time in Nadia’s hotel room, the lights suddenly go out, forcing Walter to strike a match, flooding the vast darkness with one glowing area into which Nadia, sizzling in dark hair and scarlet dress, slithers, purring, “OK, Walter, this is your last chance. Better run before it’s too late.”

But it is too late — for Walter and for us, because the moment Nadia’s erotic presence illuminates the screen, there is simply no turning back. With a few hours to kill before the all-important dinner, Walter decides to let Nadia enter his private world, the world of music and musicians, and he takes her to a studio where a guitarist pal (Stanley Jordan) is recording. Insecure about Nadia’s response to his true self, Walter stops on the way and splurges on a bottle of champagne. Despite his brother’s warning and despite Nadia’s protestations, Walter seduces her into drinking, precipitating the hilarious Walpurgisnacht that follows.

The premise of Blind Date is strikingly similar to that of Days of Wine and Roses (1963), Edwards’s harrowing depiction of a married couple disintegrating on alcohol. Jack Lemmon plays an advertising man who hates his job but works — and drinks — hard because he’s a compulsive overachiever. When he meets Lee Remick, a secretary who doesn’t drink, he charms her into alcoholism with sweet, chocolate flavored concoctions, until finally both of their lives have been more or less ruined. This is fundamentally the story of Blind Date, except that here, of course, the tragic situation is played for laughs.

The laughs in a Blake Edwards film are always, however, laced with pain and cruelty. Embarrassment and humiliation must be suffered repeatedly by the characters before there is any rapprochement. Therefore, Nadia yanks Walter through every conceivable nightmare on their blind date. She totals the guests at the fancy French restaurant, turning the business dinner into a shambles; she attracts her psychotic ex-fiance, David (John Larroquette), at a modern sculpture exhibition, and he proceeds to hound the couple wherever they go, demolishing half of Los Angeles in the process; and she lures Walter into a disco when they stop to buy gas, dancing so wildly to the music (expertly provided by Billy Vera and the Beaters) that she manages to turn the dance floor into bedlam also.

It’s vital to remember that throughout this first section of the movie, both Walter and Nadia are crocked. At the sculpture show (a wicked assemblage of heaving, copulating figures and phallic arrangements designed by Robert M. Kalafut), the two of them are still sober. By the time they hit the disco, however, they’re both bombed, and it is here in this marvelous sequence that Edwards begins to deepen their relationship. As Nadia embraces Walter in a slow dance, Edwards dissolves twice into their intertwined bodies, languorous, seductive dissolves that, like alcohol, distort time and space, and also convince us that these two just may be falling in love. The look on Walter’s face as Nadia breaks free and writhes to a faster beat confirms this feeling; as he bemusedly watches her gyrations, his face begins to suggest a grin, threatens to loosen up at least half as much as his partner is doing on the dance floor.

Blind Date is really about the shedding of Walter’s corporate skin. It’s clear from the first few minutes of the movie — his body prostrate over his computer, his frantic efforts to dress for work and be on time, and his frazzled presentation at the board meeting — that Walter’s heart isn’t in his job. He even tells Nadia at one point that his true love is music, but that he gave it up to climb the corporate ladder (“I’ll be able to buy a condo in a year”). So the narrative thread of the film is Walter’s rediscovery of the values he has cast aside in the yuppie race; he must enter into Nadia’s world, a world of uninhibited behavior, before he can then “sober up” and pursue his true goals. Of course, Edwards and Launer complicate this process of liberation by constructing Nadia’s freewheeling style in direct proportion to the alcohol she consumes. Perhaps Edwards is suggesting that a descent into alcohol — or drugs (Nadia’s problem in the original draft) — is necessary before self-knowledge can be tentatively assumed. Essentially, alcohol turns both Walter and Nadia into consummate role-players, so that they, like the characters in 10, S.O.B., and Victor/Victoria, will be able to survive the various social and psychological affronts to their sensibilities.

Some critics have carped that after the blind date itself, Blind Date falls apart. A shift in tone does occur. The hangover intermezzo stretches the morning-after degradations into a litany of Edwards’s trademark humor — a collapsing bed, nausea, and the grueling realities of an early AM police station are but a few of the punishments Walter and Nadia must undergo for their night of debauchery. And yet, magically, mysteriously, the wondrous sequence in which Nadia’s voice-over reads her letter of remorse to Walter, the sound of her words trembling against images of Walter’s growing determination to rewoo her, sends the film soaring into the rarefied stratosphere intimated by those liquid dissolves in the disco scene.

The final third of the film, in which Walter sets out to foil Nadia’s forced marriage to David, contains some of Edwards’s most brilliant coordinations of farce and feeling. Using the facade and interiors of David’s father’s mansion as a magnificent backdrop for the wide-screen dynamics that parade before and within it, Edwards orchestrates image, movement, and sound with breathtakingly finite precision. The gags are repeated and extended beyond the point of laughter, a modernist ploy that the director characteristically uses to persuade us to smile and think about the humor at the same time. Edwards devotees will be happy to know that the indefatigable Graham Stark (Hercule Lejoy of the Pink Panther series and the cockroach-haunted French waiter in Victor/Victoria) returns here as Jordan, the butler, another tormented servant whose nemesis, Rambo, the family Great Dane, provides the film with some of its funniest visual and aural gags.

The more Blake Edwards movies I see, the more I realize that the foundations of his work are in Restoration comedy, specifically those late 17th-century masterpieces by Wycherley, Congreve, and Farquhar that portray worlds of elegant licentiousness with ribaldry and wit. The foibles or humors that identify the social rank of the characters in those plays are evident in Blind Date in David’s obsessive jealousy, his superior court judge father’s (William Daniels) dyspeptic frustration at the son he’s sired, and his mother’s (Alice Hirson) Freudian addiction to putting golf balls, an act of sublimation that Walter finds himself on the receiving end of repeatedly in the final portion of the film.

The ending of Blind Date, like those of The Party (1968), Darling Lili (1970), S.O.B., and Victor/Victoria, moves onto a symbolic plane that renders everything that’s gone before in a different, metaphorical light. After driving several nails into the coffin of the screwball-comedy-last-minute-rescue-from-an-unwanted-marriage device, Edwards plunges us into some startling water imagery, once again dissolving, this time from a suburban LA swimming pool to waves breaking on the beach of an ocean. Is this a happy ending? Earlier in the movie the dissolves in the disco seemed to announce that Walter and Nadia were about to merge, but what followed were rupture and separation. Why should this dissolve herald anything different? It’s something to think about.