John Guare's acclaimed play Six Degrees of Separation would not, at first glance, seem like a very promising candidate for movie adaptation. It's stagebound, not because it's confined to one setting--it isn't--but because of its presentational style. Much of the story is relayed directly to the audience by the actors in past-tense narrative. If Guare, who wrote the screen version himself, and Fred Schepisi, who directed it, can claim nothing else, they can say that they got Six Degrees on screen in a form that's both viably cinematic and true to the piece's original identity. No small accomplishment. The solution they found was simple, elegant and appropriate--the principal narrators, Louisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing) and her private-art-dealer husband, Flanders (Donald Sutherland), wealthy East Side Manhattanites, are given on-screen audiences at weddings and dinner parties, to whom they often speak with breathless excitement, the events of which they're telling being just a few hours past.
The plot was inspired by a strange, real-life case of a few years back. A charming young black man presented himself to a number of well-to-do New Yorkers roughly equivalent to the Kittredges, posing as a college friend of their children and as the son of Sidney Poitier. He claimed to be stuck in New York with no place to go, and was offered hospitality.
In Six Degrees, Ouisa and Flan, as they're called, are entertaining a white South African friend and potential investor (Ian McKellen) when "Paul Poitier" (Will Smith) shows up at their apartment in full preppy regalia. He's bleeding at the stomach from a knife wound he says he sustained in a mugging. They tend the wound and give him a change of clothes.
In return, Paul cooks them a wonderful dinner, then dazzles them with an amazing monologue interpreting The Catcher in the Rye--the substance of the college thesis he claims to have lost in the mugging. His hosts, especially Ouisa, are immediately enchanted, and so, eventually, is his initially suspicious fellow guest. The Kittredges put Paul up for the night, but the next morning, when Ouisa enters his room to wake him up, she finds him in bed with a male prostitute. Understandably enough, Ouisa and Flan throw Paul and his date out in revulsion. The con seems only to have been for the sake of the hospitality, however--nothing is missing from their apartment. Later, they meet acquaintances (Mary Beth Hurt and Bruce Davison, then Richard Masur) who have also entertained Paul under the same pretenses. All of them have kids at Harvard, so they set their appalled spawn the task of figuring out who this mystery man is.
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There's something resonant in this material, no question about it. Guare is arguably the best comic playwright now living in America, and Six Degrees is, undeniably, an absorbing work. Guare's inventive plotting and the hilariously loopy lyricism of his dialogue sweep us along smoothly--so smoothly, in fact, that it may take us a while to realize that we haven't really arrived anywhere at the end. One hates to resort to the obvious simile, but Guare is here a bit like "Paul Poitier" himself. Guare's obviously brilliant and delightful, but what he's presenting to us is mostly smoke and mirrors.
Of course, brilliant and delightful count for a lot by themselves. Six Degrees may not be as deep as it ought, but it's broad--the writing is loaded with bustle and wit and observation. The actors skate along on Guare's blithe, almost musical chatter with evident and infectious joy. Will Smith, a sitcom and lite-rap star, uses his boyish handsomeness and rich, friendly voice, with its slight parody of preppy-white-kid intonation, to make a beguiling turn out of Paul. Sexy, pixy-faced Channing (who originated the part on Broadway) brings a breath of humanity to Ouisa, and the ever-reliable Sutherland does the same for the underwritten Flan. The supporting roles are all caricatures--especially the riotously noxious Harvard kids--but the impressive secondary cast makes them into amusing caricatures.
But at close inspection, Ouisa and Flan aren't one bit more developed as characters than the platitudinous bit roles; we're just shown more of them. They're stereotypically fatuous, vaguely well-intentioned rich folk, working themselves up over this kid because they can't see he's taking them for a ride. There's a hint of affection to the stereotype, so it doesn't appear to be mere rich-bashing on Guare's part. If it were, the piece would be nastier and less important and maybe more fun. But Guare has added a texturing element to the story--what Ouisa responds to in Paul is his genuine desire to be like her and Flan, his longing to be accepted in the upper class. But Ouisa and Flan (the fine performances of Channing and Sutherland notwithstanding) are so one-dimensional that this is baffling. Recently, I heard about some white anthropologists who, while visiting certain Central American natives, observed the natives sharing a glass of pop. Before passing the communal glass to the next person, each of the natives would spill a bit of the contents onto the ground, and the visitors made the clever guess that this was an offering to Mother Earth. It turned out, however, that the natives had heard about germs, and were just trying to rinse the rim of the glass. Perhaps, for all of Guare's verbal brilliance and for all of Schepisi's structural intricacies and for all of the excellent acting, Six Degrees of Separation ends up stumbling into a similar cultural anthropologist's error. It's classic upper-crust behavior to put up strangers, or strangers' kids, for no reason other than that they're fellow rich people. Isn't it more likely that Ouisa and Flan took Paul in not because of liberal guilt, or because they were being, as Ouisa puts it, "star fuckers," but simply because it's what One Does?
Seen in this context, Paul's imposture becomes even more poignant (and, in a wistful way, funnier), whether he longed to become upper class or not. He could only explain being both black and rich convincingly to these people by being the son of a movie star.