Fun fact: Steve Martin was supposed to star in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. (Yes, that Steve Martin.)
In his biography Kubrick, Michael Herr writes: “Stanley thought it would be perfect for Steve Martin. He’d love The Jerk… I know that his idea for it in those days was always as a sex comedy, but with a wild and somber streak running through it.” When Kubrick finally made the film over a decade later, it appeared as though any chance of a “sex comedy” had gone out the window with the casting of 1990s power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in the lead roles.
Based on the 1926 Austrian novella Traumnovelle (also known as Dream Story), Eyes Wide Shut follows Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) as he attempts a sexual odyssey through New York after the shocking reveal that his wife Alice (Kidman) had contemplated an affair a year earlier. While it’s interesting to wonder how the Steve Martin iteration might have turned out, the actual Eyes Wide Shut proves to be as dark and comedic a as Kubrick’s recognizable comedies (Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, respectively), albeit with a far more self-serious tone.
In a sense, Eyes Wide Shut is a fish out of water comedy — just one where the fish is always trying (and failing) to have sex. Throughout the film, Dr. Bill finds himself out of his element. Whether he’s interacting with an orgy cult leader or a hotel clerk, Dr. Bill always ends up the submissive one, scrambling for any leverage.
Kubrick might have watched titillating thrills like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction as research for his film, but only so he could note what depravity he could get away with under an R rating. The film’s treatment of sex is just as clinical and removed as any of Kubrick’s subjects; however, when that treatment is applied to something as ridiculous as masquerade cult orgy, one can’t help but laugh.
Given the conspiracy to which Kubrick himself has been attached, perhaps the director saw Eyes Wide Shut as his opportunity to mock such conspiratorial thinking. When Dr. Bill tries to confront Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and accuses him and his cabal of murder, Ziegler responds with righteous indignation:
Okay Bill, let’s cut the bullshit, alright? You’ve been way out of your depth for the last 24 hours! You want the truth? You want to know what kind of charade? I’ll tell you exactly what kind. That whole play-acted, “take me” sacrifice that you’ve been jerking off with had nothing to do with her real death. The truth is, nothing happened to her after you left that hadn’t happened to her before. She got her brains fucked out. Period!
Yes, Dr. Bill infiltrated a secret organization of Stonecutter proportions. (Ziegler tells him: ”If I told you their names… no, I’m not going to tell you their names… but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well at night.”) But to accuse them of murder? That’s as ridiculous as saying The Shining is Kubrick’s confession of his involvement in faking the moon landings.
Eyes Wide Shut ends on a brilliant comic beat as the ridiculousness of the film comes crashing down into a one-word solution offered up by Dr. Bill’s wife as a salve for their marriage:
That word not only sums up Eyes Wide Shut, or even Kubrick’s filmography, but possibly the entirety of human existence. I mean…fuck. What a way to go out, Stan.
Justin Geldzahler has this theory that if you play Eyes Wide Shut in sync with Dark Side of the Moon, you’ll look like an idiot.