Prompted by Tom Sutpen's insightful thoughts about Kiss Me, Stupid, posted at Illusion Travels By Streetcar, I finally watched this 1964 film by Billy Wilder. Posing as a sex farce, the movie is actually a poisoned-pen letter to the American male — full of bitterness and bile.
As Tom pointed out, Wilder's great sex comedies, like The Apartment, poke fun at the puerile obsessions of American males, but also offer humane female characters who forgive them and to a degree redeem them. The dynamic is at work in Wilder's darker dramas, too, like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, but the women don't forgive in those films and the men are not redeemed — they are simply released by death.
There is bitterness and bile directed towards weak, collapsed males in all these films — it's just a question of what, if anything, balances the equation.
Kiss Me, Stupid is unique in that the equation is hardly balanced at all, and in only the most perfunctory way — and yet it is, nominally, a comedy. “Kiss Me, Stupid” might serve as the title for most Wilder films about collapsed males. Its frankness as the actual title of this one seems to reflect Wilder's inability to restrain his contempt for the modern male to any degree at all.
The film opens with a nightclub performance in Las Vegas by “Dino”, played by Dean Martin, parodying — or incarnating, depending on your point of view — his stage persona as a horny, alcoholic hipster. He delivers some patter about the showgirls in the act — cheap sexual innuendo masquerading as humor. The waiters looking on laugh like jackasses at the prurient jokes — the exaggeration of their stupidity is disturbing, totally undercutting the “glamor” of the show and the venue.
It's a kind of set-up for the rest of the film — suggesting that anyone who finds it funny is an imbecile. Wilder has moved from despising the American male to despising his audience. It's a radical act — perhaps not entirely conscious. Kiss Me, Stupid is a film that seems to be powered on some level by a hatred that's gotten out of control.
The women in the film are decent, sensible human beings — like Miss Kubelick in The Apartment. They offer a running commentary on the brutish imbecility of the men. But for once Wilder doesn't give us any avenue leading towards sympathy with the men. “Dino” remains a cartoon boor. The doltish protagonist is played by Ray Walston, who lacks the charm of a Lemmon or a Ewell, which took the edge off of their stupidity in The Apartment and The Seven Year Itch, respectively.
Kiss Me, Stupid ends with the Walston character “humanized” by his encounter with a good-hearted prostitute called Polly the Pistol, played by Kim Novak, but the change isn't convincing — it plays like a sop to audience expectations that comes too late, unfelt and under-dramatized. You sort of hate his wife for settling for a dimwit like him, even if she's found a way to manipulate him into being an acceptable mate.
The film is commonly regarded as an unpleasant failure, but it fails only because Wilder didn't follow his venomous vision to its uttermost ends. But how could he — at least in what purported to be a mainstream comedy? You get a feeling in Double Indemnity that Wilder truly hates his lead couple — not for their criminality but for their bad taste, cheap banter, infantile desires. In a drama, he could resolve this hatred by killing them. In the “comic” world of Kiss Me, Stupid he has to leave his dumb males in their nihilistic hell. The barely perceptible glimmer of hope, of redemption, he felt compelled to offer them reads as a confession of artistic bafflement by Wilder.
You can't kill off every collapsed male in America, after all — but for most of Kiss Me, Stupid you get a feeling that's just what Wilder wishes he could do. He settled for humiliating and degrading them, and in the process humiliating and degrading anyone who might find their predicament amusing.
Kiss Me, Stupid is, finally, an ugly film about ugly men. Some fun, huh? Well, not exactly — but damned interesting, if only as an example of what can happen when an artist is unhinged, deranged by the very passions that, controlled and balanced, fueled his best work.