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"My soul needs an overhaul," sighs Phyllis Mann, a faded B-movie beauty reduced to a lethargic existence as a couch potato, smoking cigarettes and watching videotapes of her former glory while her handyman husband tends to the plumbing, literally and figuratively, of his middle-aged clientele. That Phyllis is played by Julie Christie, the once vivacious mod princess of the 1960's, lends this sight an extra layer of poignancy, giving Alan Rudolph's typically off-kilter Afterglow (1997) a wistful soul that sustains the film through its many flights of forced fancy. A sort of four-character bedroom farce, the story concerns the chance commingling of an older and younger couple, and how the fulfillment of their individual yearnings wounds their other half. Phyllis allows her husband, Lucky (Nick Nolte), to cat around with impunity so long as he remains emotionally detached from his paramours. But when he begins working for the sexually voracious Marianne Byron (Lara Flynn Boyle), whose husband Jeffrey (Johnny Lee Miller) is an ice-in-the-veins corporate raider, Lucky finds himself sucked into her vortex of desire, which swirls with the ovulating fury of a would-be mother. The business-minded Jeffrey has denied Marianne's wish for a child, ignoring her needs entirely while gradually articulating a predilection for older women. But once he begins to suspect that Marianne is being unfaithful, Jeffrey nonetheless flies into a jealous rage, resolving to catch her cheating at a posh hotel bar, which is where he first encounters Phyllis. Jeffrey's flirtation with Phyllis is laughably blunt and charmless, but she eventually surrenders to the petulant young man if only to experience for the first time in ages the restorative feeling of being wanted. When Jeffrey brings her to dinner with a prospective wheeler-dealer business partner, Phyllis finds herself fending off advances from both men, but while the attention is a sizable boost for her flagging confidence, it's not quite the complete consolation she might have expected. At the pit of Phyllis's sorrow is her daughter Cassie, who was conceived during a drunken onset quickie with her longtime co-star, and has since run away. This is meant to somehow dovetail with Marianne's longing for a child, who will likely be fathered by Lucky, but the connection is never really felt because Rudolph has erred badly in his casting. Boyle and Miller are absolutely grating as the younger couple, shouting their overwritten dialogue as if this were an audition for the high school drama club. This isn't surprising, since Rudolph, at his worst, tends to write like a second-rate, off-Broadway playwright. But he's also at his very best with Christie and Nolte, both of whom bring a heavy sense of resignation to their characters that makes this at least half a great film. And though Nolte is dependably charming as the ruggedly handsome Lucky, the picture truly belongs to Christie, who received her first Oscar nomination in 16 years for her performance here. It's an instance of a glamorous aging movie star playing against our memories of her brilliant youth, engendering both melancholy and wonderment as we see the ways in which time has touched her still lovely visage. Columbia TriStar presents Afterglow in an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras are limited to a trio of trailers for other Sony films. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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