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Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Today’s cinema adventure: Six Degrees of Separation, the 1993 adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer-nominated play of the same name, starring Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Will Smith, with a screenplay by the playwright himself. Through the tale of a well-to-do Manhattan couple whose lives are infiltrated by a mysterious and charismatic young con artist, Guare uses his gift for language to explore how our connections to other people weave us into a tapestry of shared experience and lead us to new perspectives on our lives and ourselves, and to subtly reveal how the parallels between us transcend the illusory differences of class, race, sexuality and culture and expose the sometimes uncomfortable truths which unite us all; however, in the translation from stage to film, the complex, literate and emotionally resonant dialogue sometimes borders on sounding awkward and stilted, the central premise comes across as contrived and unconvincing, and the powerful revelations of the play seem almost artificial and trite. The fault lies with director Fred Schepisi, who- instead of utilizing the potential of the cinematic medium to enhance and illuminate the play- has taken the rather pedestrian approach of grafting it into a straightforward narrative, expanding the action into a variety of real-world settings which only serve to distance us from the characters and undermine the cumulative power of the unfolding story. The endless progression of upper-crust social gatherings and well-appointed locations continually remind us that we are watching a movie about the problems of spoiled rich people, instead of providing us with the class-dissolving intimacy of a more abstract theatrical experience; and as a result, instead of an emotional catharsis, we are given an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, the power of Guare’s original work shines through (albeit in diluted form) thanks to the talented ensemble cast, which clearly relishes the opportunity to speak his words and embody his characters, and if the movie is ultimately a bit disappointing, they at least ensure that it is never boring. Sutherland is, as always, interesting to watch, and Channing does possibly her best screen work here- she earned a well- deserved Oscar nomination for her performance; Ian McKellen shines as wealthy dinner guest who is also taken in by the young hustler, as do Heather Graham and Eric Thal as a younger, less affluent couple whose experience with him yields considerably more tragic results.  In the key role of the enigmatic stranger, Will Smith copiously displays the charm that made him a star; but my favorite performance comes from Anthony Michael Hall, whose brief appearance as a key character steals the show and makes us keenly regret his relative disappearance from the film industry.  As a side note, from the standpoint of social history, Six Degrees represents a minor landmark in the acceptance of gay-themed subject matter in mainstream cinema with its inclusion of the con man’s homosexual trysts, which may generate interest for some viewers; for everyone else, however, it’s a film that is worth the time investment, for the sake of the performances and the opportunity to experience Guare’s script- just manage your expectations, or you may end up feeling you are the one who’s been conned.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108149/

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