Saturday 27 July 2013

Movie Review: Shampoo (1975)

A sex and politics farce of sorts, Shampoo is weighed down by petulant characters engaged in uniformly selfish behaviour. The lack of anyone remotely sympathetic, or halfway intelligent, sucks most of the enjoyment out of the movie.

It's the eve of the 1968 presidential election. In Los Angeles, George (Warren Beatty) works as a hairdresser. He dreams of opening his own salon, but does not have the credit or business savvy to secure a loan. Extremely popular with his lady clients who find him sexually irresistible, George is sleeping with Jill (Goldie Hawn), who is naive enough to think that she is the only woman in his life. In fact, George jumps into bed with any willing woman, including Jackie (Julie Christie), the mistress of the pompous, rich and politically-connected Lester (Jack Warden).

Jackie suggests that George approach Lester to secure a private loan. While Jackie is torn between the promise of what Lester can offer her (should he ever leave his wife) and George's raw passion, Lester is intrigued by George, but also suspicious of him. As well he should be: George is also sleeping with Lester's wife Felicia (Lee Grant). Meanwhile, Lester's daughter, Lorna (Carrie Fisher) wants in on the action with George. As Nixon is confirmed as the winner of the election, a night of stuffy political banquets and wild sex parties provides a backdrop for George, Lester and Jackie to sort out their futures.

Shampoo bids a fond adieu to the free-wheeling, sex-drenched days of the 1960s social revolution, and ushers in the era of cynicism and corruption, as marked by Nixon's election. It's an interesting seam in cultural history, but Shampoo is unable to do much with it. Bogged down by uninteresting and unlikable characters, the film is a tiresome merry-go-round of sexual obsession among a group of desperate dullards. It's rarely funny, nor does it carry any meaningful weight of drama.

Director Hal Ashby struggles to create something watchable out of the Robert Towne script, finding only so much story in the ongoing sexapades and half-hearted attempts at irony. Precious few laughs and fewer sober thoughts are generated, and none are sustained. Shampoo settles down to a series of set-piece parties and hair appointments interrupted by brief couplings that admittedly were risqué in 1975.

Warren Beatty rides around on his motorcycle from house to house and bed to bed (or just the floor will do, on some occasions) having sex with every desirous female, and he sports a serious contender for the most ridiculous hairdo in the history of motion pictures. As is typical for the Beatty persona, he mostly just is, a catalyst around which women flutter and dissolve, for no apparent reason related to ability, smarts or prospects. George is a great summary of things that women regret wasting their time on in their later years.

Jack Warden, usually confined to limited screen time, gets one of his more expansive roles. Representing a 1950s man beginning to get really lost at the end of the 1960s, Warden makes Lester the most interesting character in the movie as the man with everything but inching towards a variety of self-destruct buttons to counter the growing boredom and detachment.

The ladies of Shampoo are hampered by having no brains to overcome the sexual gravity generated in proximity to George. The characters played by Julie Christie, Lee Grant and Goldie Hawn never answer any questions related to what is attracting them to a big-haired loser stuck in a dead-end job. Hawn's Jill seems able to grab any man she wants (and indeed she tries to arouse George's jealousy); Christie as Jackie is already wrecking one home by carrying on with Lester; with George, she risks destroying her destruction, which may be quite appropriate. And Grant's Felicia is pretending to be jealous of Jackie while cheating on Lester with George. Sympathetic, these women are not.

Only Carrie Fisher as Lorna seems to get it right: she uses George to scratch an itch, and has no other agenda or expectations. Welcome to the 1970s.

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  1. Well, I like this movie a lot, even if it´s not considered to be good by many or not best of Ashby´s 70s flicks, I still like it. I mean, I have nothing in common with the characters int the film, they are totally different than I am, i even donť like Beatty so much, but i still enjoy the film, when I see it. I agree with you on Jack Warden, he is great in this, Ashby discovered his comedic talent for film and I like the atmosphere of that film, everyone in the film is shallow, but I think that the film isn´t shallow, I think Ashby kept distance from his characters that even you donť like them, you can still feel the absurdity and "going nowhere" of it all...and in the end, George for the first time feels, how empty his life has been until the moment, when Jackie leaves him for good..."the only person which he trust", like he said - the end is very bittersweet, very sad...and it gives this film its meaning, I think.

    1. Good insight. I admit I sometimes have a problem with movies that focus on vacuous self-absorbed characters. I (mostly) don't enjoy having to spend time with people who choose to be aimless narcissists and then wonder why their life is going down the toilet. Shampoo is one of the perfect examples of that; maybe the film does it well, but I can't get over the rampant selfishness.


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