Ever since his son’s murder in one of those random bits of violence that make gloomy headlines, Macon Leary (William Hurt) has been slowly dying inside. He won’t admit to it — he’s the sort of man who can bury himself in his work, metaphorically and perhaps literally as well — but his wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner) knows better. She too has been dying inside, and cannot bear to suffocate along with him. “You’re just trying to slip through life without a jolt,” she says when he returns from one of his interminable business trips. “I’m enduring,” Macon retorts, but she can only endure so much of his brand of enduring. She leaves, and Macon finds himself rattling around inside his suddenly-too-large house with his son’s Corgi, Edward, perpetually underfoot.
Macon’s job is an extension of his insularity. He writes travel guides for American tourists stuck in foreign countries, where they are not sure if they can find Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Safeway, so they can feel like they’ve never left home. The opening moments of the film encapsulate the way his work and his personal life have intersected: he loads a suitcase according to his own advice and then ends up encountering a self-professed fan of his guidebooks in the plane seat next to his. Even when Macon has done well by others, he doesn’t really seem to feel it. Maybe he never did, the movie suggests, and his son’s death simply made overt what was hiding all along. He just no longer has the capacity to fake it.
Travel writer Macon Leary's marriage hits the rocks when his wife Sarah
confesses she can no longer break through his self-imposed emotional walls.
This man needs a depth charge to break up the ice that has formed in his soul. He gets one in the form of Muriel (Geena Davis), the frizzy-haired woman at the Baltimore pet kennel where he boards Edward before a trip to England. She takes one look at him and senses a man in need, and drops one hint after another. Perhaps she could help train Edward not to be quite so snappish with strangers. “Bad dogs are my speciality,” she says cheerfully. Macon, still stuck in spiritual cold storage, replies “Webster’s prefers ‘specialty’,” without missing a beat. He doesn’t pick up on any of her advances, of course, and — almost as punishment for his reticence — he suffers a comically bizarre accident in his basement, breaks a leg, and ends up in the extended care of his no-less-eccentric sister and two brothers.
These three have remained even more land-locked in their ways than Macon ever did. His sister, Rose (Amy Wright) functions like the ringleader for the circus of their lives, which centers around things like the impenetrable card games that they made up as children and still play. When we see brothers Porter (David Ogden Stiers) and Charles (Ed Begley, Jr.) helping Rose alphabetize the groceries, it’s like another layer of context for Macon’s obsessions with travel-sized packets of spot remover and medium gray suits that are “handy for sudden funerals”. They sense, quite correctly, that Muriel is a disruptive influence, and are wildly unthrilled that Macon and Sarah drifted apart and that she has drifted in to fill the gap. Not that they seem willing to help Macon and Sarah patch things up themselves, though: they’re just as happy that Macon’s back in their fold, eating their baked potatoes, even if he did bring that crazy dog with him.
Without Sarah, Macon settles in for an increasingly insular routine of work,
and becoming re-engulfed in the oddball if comforting habits of his family.
But Muriel’s here to stay in Macon’s life — not just to help him bring Edward under control, but to seep under the closed door of Macon’s emotions. The interplay between them is like a bizarre parlor game, where Macon has to do everything in his power to deny that she’s awakened something within him. The scene where he finally admits to the presence of a wound in his soul is note-perfect: he’s been on ice for so long, he doesn’t even know how to break down and cry. It’s emotionally liberating for him, and for a while he’s more than a little aimlessly giddy with his joy — but always in the same slightly locked-down way he’s accustomed to. He’s not going to have a complete revolution in the seat of his soul, and he still hasn’t applied those changes to helping anyone else (save maybe Muriel and her son).
An opportunity arises to do just that, in the form of Julian (Bill Pullman), Macon’s boss, who develops a goony sort of affection for Rose when he comes over to their house to collect book chapters. He not only ends up wooing Rose and taking her side during a bizarre, hilarious confrontation over a Thanksgiving turkey, but marrying her. And then to his dismay, he finds that Rose simply can’t tear herself away from the two brothers she’s spent a lifetime mothering in lieu of the real thing. Macon’s answer to this is priceless: he tells Julian to call her and beg her to “help get things under control.” He knows what makes his sister tick, and as it turns out, much of what takes place between her and Julian is a funhouse-mirror version of his own fumbling towards joy.
Dog trainer Muriel Pritchett turns up to act as an icebreaker for the Arctic sea of
his emotions, but Macon's entirely uncertain how to respond.
It’s also not that easy for him to simply sit pretty in Muriel’s company. She wants someone who means what he says, and says what he means, and when a regretful Sarah steps back into Macon’s life he finds you simply cannot let years of the familiar go just like that. Then he ends up in Paris flat on his back in a hotel bed, trying to decide what’s going to be best for all three of them and why, and for the first time in his life he has to figure out what he really feels, not simply what he tells himself he must feel for the sake of someone else who happens to be looking on.
What’s most curious about The Accidental Tourist, and certainly the most out-and-out lovable thing about it, is how all this potentially grim and gray material has been handled with winsome humor bubbling just under the surface. It’s uproarious instead of being a sad slog, thanks to a kind of peculiar chemistry of acting, writing and directing that is not the sort of thing you can engineer in a movie but is more often than not a happy accident. The most obvious agent of this strange cheer is Muriel, as embodied by Geena Davis — she’s a free spirit, but not the sort of ghastly insufferable free spirit character that is all too often slotted into a position opposite someone as hidebound and repressed as Macon. Her attitude is a way of pushing back the dark curtain of her life: she may have a funny wardrobe and a perky personal style, she is determined to do right by her sickly little son, especially after the man who sired her decided not to stick around. She’s not about to have a repeat of that mistake, and she senses — maybe not entirely correctly — how Macon can be right for her, and vice versa.
It's only when he's able to see how he behaves both with and without her
that Macon can finally act on the way his liberated feelings have changed him.
The other thing that works perfectly is William Hurt, a perfect go-to guy for playing dour, repressed types. He embodies Macon from end to end, and a lot of the humor in the role is in the ways he delivers single lines or individual turns of phrase, or the way he smiles without ever actually smiling — at least until the very last shot in the film. Kathleen Turner as Sarah makes a suitable balance for Hurt’s frozen manners: she manages to make Sarah seem like someone who has been wounded badly and not someone who was defective by design, so to speak. Amy Wright I have seen in many other movies without ever completely registering her — she was in the delightful Miss Firecracker one year after this movie came out — but she’s chirpy and irresistible as Rose, who is able to make sense of Julian’s wreck of an office but still can’t signal correctly when merging into traffic.
Writing about The Accidental Tourist is a little like writing about why I love my wife so much. Anne Tyler’s novel, like the movie, was and remains a favorite of mine: thoughtful without being pretentious, funny without being labored, and endlessly re-readable and re-discoverable. When people came to me asking for writing advice, I steered them towards the book; most everything I could tell them about writing was in there in some form. I come back to it at least once a year. The movie does the remarkable job of being faithful to the book in all the right ways, like a re-orchestration of a favorite song for a single guitar that somehow doesn’t seem to have dropped a note. It’s not an adventurous film in terms of its style — director Lawrence Kasdan’s style is essentially lifted intact from the filmmaking of a generation or two earlier, right down to the music — but that’s not a bad thing, as playing stylistic games with a movie this emotionally forthright would have been distracting. Everything is exactly what it needs to be here, and it all works.