Published on July 14th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice 
Summary: This movie serves as a visual time capsule of the swinging 60's, but its well-meaning message seems to have been lost with time.
R | 101 mins.
Director: Paul Mazursky | Screenplay: Paul Mazursky, Larry Tucker
Starring: Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon
Studio: Columbia Pictures
I write a lot about knowing what to expect when you sit down to watch a movie as it can sometimes be the decider between fandom and indifference.
I went into Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (known from this point as BCTA, to save me valuable seconds!), I wasn’t sure what to expect. This movie’s reputation certainly precedes it, most people seek it out after having heard that it’s a landmark of sex cinema…I’d had this movie on my list for years basically for the excuse of seeing Natalie Wood in her underwear.
Don’t sit down expecting, as it’s been erroneously billed for years, a comedy about wife-swapping among swinging friends. You can’t be blamed for carrying these expectations into a viewing of BCTA, most likely because the cover of the damn movie features the four central characters sitting in a bed together.
This image, while memorable, doesn’t take place until the last ten minutes of a nearly 2-hour ride. These characters are best friends and while sex is a theme throughout the film, imbedded moral differences keep them from simply hopping into bed together. I feel if you go into BCTA with this scene in mind, you’ll be disappointed there isn’t more carefree sex depicted onscreen.
As I mentioned, sex is constantly present in this movie–so much so that it should probably be considered a character! However, I wouldn’t call this a movie purely about sex, rather it’s about the differing attitudes toward that subject that divide so many people–and later, about burying those differences and loving thy neighbor.
Bob and Carol Sanders (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) are an upper-class married couple who’ve recently spent a weekend at a retreat called “The Institute”, where people meditate in the nude and offer up group hugs during emotional sharing sessions. Upon returning home, they have a renewed sense of passion toward each other and have decided to let jealousy go, essentially practicing the elusive “open marriage”. They inform their best friends Ted and Alice Henderson (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon) of their new arrangement, leading the more traditional couple to feel uncomfortable and question them.
It’s at this point that BCTA reveals its true colors–not as a comedy about sex, but rather a drama about relationships. Until Ted and Alice are introduced into the mix, I found this film hard to connect with, but they serve as its heart and soul. The story features an effective dynamic between the two opposing views of sex and marriage, also an obvious metaphor for colliding cultures in the 1960s. Bob and Carol are clearly representative of the progressive hippie counterculture while Ted and especially Alice play the conservative “heavies” of yesterday.
Several themes are explored in Paul Mazursky & Larry Tucker’s screenplay including the difficulty in defying social norms, as well as pushing personal beliefs onto someone else. At its core, I feel like this film’s message is to love thy neighbor (sometimes literally). If you don’t quite see this message peeking through the film’s plot and characters, don’t worry as its bizarre ending will beat it into your skull.
BCTA‘s greatest strength is its acting, which netted both Gould and Cannon Academy Award nominations, and its script has moments of greatness–particularly a pivotal exchange between Alice and her therapist in which she accidentally reveals some surprising truths. However, this scene is almost ruined by the dreadfully stiff acting of the actor playing her therapist, it made me pray to God that Lorraine Bracco would swoop in and rescue us.
I also dig the fact that this film acts as a time capsule of late-60s culture, complete with mini-skirts, wild hair, beads, and Culp decked out in a full-on Austin Powers blue suit. Although this dates the movie terribly, it’s an authentic reminder of a fascinating period in American pop culture.
Where BCTA lost me is with numerous writing problems, as there is virtually no exposition letting us get to know, and better appreciate, Bob and Carol prior to their transformative weekend. Also, the previously noted ending provides zero conflict resolution and feels like the cast just said “Fuck it, let’s get high and make a Coca-Cola ad!”. The movie also could use a tighter edit, as at least 15 minutes of material could be cut without losing an ounce of substance.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice poses some tough questions about possession, sex, and jealousy in marriage and settles on the idea that everyone should mind their own business. With plenty of debate regarding love & marriage around the country today–I think we could all take a lesson from this film’s closing tune, “What the World Needs Now is Love”.
…also, it doesn’t hurt when Natalie Wood is pantless.