Release Date(s)1980 (May 4, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
Marriage with its ups and downs has been a popular subject in movies since the silent days. Directors have explored the many-faceted institution seriously and comically in films ranging in tone from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Father of the Bride. The Last Married Couple in America tries to wring comedy from the fragile state of wedded bliss and the difficulty of navigating its unpredictability and peculiarities.
Jeff and Mari Thompson (George Segal, Natalie Wood) have a regular touch football game with several other couples, all apparently happily married. But one by one, the couples separate and head for divorce. This astonishes and perplexes Jeff and Mari. Pondering the trend spreading through their affluent social community at an alarming rate, they examine their own marriage and wonder why they seem the exception rather than the rule. They’re happy.
Segal plays Jeff as bewildered, disbelieving, and self-doubting, alternately projecting a schoolboy innocence and a Masters & Johnson inquisitiveness about sex and relationships. He radiates sympathy combined with eye-opening shock as he listens to friend Marv (Richard Benjamin) first boast of his freedom and later whine about his misery. But his line delivery doesn’t change much from wide-eyed astonishment.
Natalie Wood as Mari displays more of a range, conveying kittenish affection, surprise, annoyance, disappointment, and rage. Mari has every reason to be happy, yet she obsessively examines why she is happy. The viewer can see it even if she can’t. She has a successful, loving husband, three young children, a beautiful home, and she looks great.
The arguments that arise and escalate between Jeff and Mari emanate more from the writer’s head than from the couple’s relationship and their banter seems contrived. At a tense moment, Mari uncharacteristically utters a four-letter epithet that seems to have been tossed in mostly for shock value.
Conveniently, Jeff runs into old high school friend Walter Holmes (Dom DeLuise) who, it turns out, has become a porn actor to supplement his income as plumber. His new wife, he tells Jeff, is a sex worker. DeLuise is naturally funny and offers some truly amusing scenes, but the script is an insurmountable obstacle for everyone else. Walter later asks Jeff for permission to hold a birthday party for his wife at Jeff’s house since his own place is too small. Walter’s circle of porn movie and hooker pals combined with the Thompsons’ bourgeois friends should offer some last-act laughs, but the scene just dies.
Valerie Harper (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) plays Barbara, a recently divorced predator who has her sights set on Jeff and is hardly subtle about making her intentions known. She visits his office to announce, unembarrassedly, that she’d love to get him in bed. He manages to resist her advances, only to run into her again after commiserating with his unhappy friend Marv. This time, he succumbs and they end up at a cheap motel.
Bob Dishy plays Howard, a divorce lawyer who represents only women so he can seduce them. He tries coming on to Mari when he senses her marriage might be shaky. Dishy is best playing a nebbish, not a ladies’ man, and the scene falls flat.
The script by John Herman Shaner is built on one preposterous premise after another. The film feels like an extended sitcom with gags about sex, fidelity, womanizing, aggressive females, and even a social disease—most of which come off as smarmy rather than funny. The basic premise is unconvincing. The Thompsons are happy, but the script insists that they examine why they haven’t beaten a path to divorce lawyers.
Director Gilbert Cates fails to milk most of the film’s episodes for full comic effect. The party at the end of the film, for instance, is meant to be the climax as well as a comic centerpiece, but it’s staged with such indifference that even the partygoers look bored. The chemistry between Segal and Wood is inconsistent. In some scenes, they look like a real couple; in others, they’re delivering lines with little emotional connection. Cates should have watched a few Cary Grant comedies to see how comic “business” amplifies dialogue and adds characterization.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the film's Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Overall quality is excellent. Clarity, color balance, and lighting contribute to warm images. Details such as patterns in clothing, household furnishings, strands of hair, and leaves on trees are nicely delineated. When Jeff drives Barbara back to her car, it’s raining and we’re looking through the front windshield at Barbara and Jeff as windshield wipers swish back and forth, providing alternate obscured and clear images. The color palette is generally bright, with bold primary colors dominating. When Marv and Jeff talk in a bar, the lighting is subdued as they wear grey and dark blue suits. The Thompson house looks as if it was taken from the pages of House Beautiful, with its open feel and stylish, casual decor. Outdoor scenes at a soccer game and the opening scene of the couples playing touch football are shot on sunlit days and reflect a cheerful, easygoing mood.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout, though in many scenes actors are nearly shouting when their voices should be more modulated. Disco music is heard in the background at a party early in the film, placing the time frame as the late 70s-early 80s. In a steam room, Marv lets out a primal scream shortly before we learn he is getting a divorce. Maureen McGovern sings the song We Could Have It All under the closing credits.
Bonus materials on the R-rated Blu-ray release include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Lee Gambin notes that The Last Married Couple in America deals with the “intricacies of relationships and what makes them tick.” The touch football game that opens the film is a metaphor for the “game of marriage.” The screenplay focuses on “the glamour of divorce and how it becomes an epidemic.” The time period is the last days of disco with adults attempting to be current and trendy. Many films made at this time deal with divorce—Kramer vs. Kramer and Mr. Mom are mentioned. Women were becoming far more independent. The film deals with missing out if you don’t divorce. Barbara’s frank discussion about sex with Mari is compared to a conversation between shoot-from-the-hip Rhoda and demure Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Men are shown congregating to discuss marriage and divorce. In the film, friends step in as surrogate therapists when marriages deteriorate before their eyes. Career overviews are provided for George Segal, Natalie Wood, and Dom DeLuise and their stand-out performances in other films are noted. In many ways, the film pays homage to the Golden Age of Screwball Comedy, though the frankness of the subject matter is more open. The scene in which Jeff is told he’s contracted gonorrhea resonates because of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and the current Covid pandemic. Jeff, who is initially likable, is eventually seen to be less than the ideal husband. The film is loosely based on sophisticated urban folks in the middle class who wanted to dabble in free love, but found the experience alienated couples from one another. A scene featuring nudity toward the end of the film is both shocking and awkward, but hardly sexy. It comes off more as tragic and symbolic, marking the end of a period of adults experimenting. Though the film has a lot to say about sex and the politics of sex, the final image is one of family unity. The Last Married Couple in America was Natalie Wood’s penultimate film before her tragic passing.
Theatrical Trailers – Trailers for the film and other films released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber are included: The Last Married Couple In America, Where’s Poppa?, All Night Long, and Sweet Liberty.
The Last Married Couple in America portrays its characters as upscale, intelligent individuals who have achieved financial security, raised a family, live in a lovely home, and have an active social life. But it treats those characters like joke machines in a bad TV sitcom. If the humor had worked, that would be acceptable dramatic license. But because it fails to portray these folks realistically, putting them in contrived situations, and offering only tepid, intermittent humor, the film doesn’t have much to recommend. Segal and Wood try their best but are hobbled by a mundane script and an uninspired director.
- Dennis Seuling