Joan Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends seems conventional enough on the surface, a road movie about a clinical psychiatrist in crisis, Dianne Cruise (Talia Shire), who sets off on a cross-country quest to track down her past paramours in order to better understand the woman she’s become. As Dianne explains her intentions via voiceover, “I realized if I could figure out why I loved them then, I could figure out myself and love myself.” And yet, Tewkesbury’s film, initially reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, is the rare journey-of-self-discovery yarn in which the protagonist grows more mysterious as the story progresses. By the end of Old Boyfriends, the audience will learn a bit about Dianne’s past, but it may ultimately feel as if you understand her less than you did at the start of the film.
Old Boyfriends opens with a dramatic helicopter shot of a car speeding through the streets of Los Angeles before crashing into a stone wall, followed by a disconnected shot in which we see Dianne’s hand dial an unknown number and hold the receiver up to a speaker that’s playing the Duprees’s “You Belong to Me.” It’s indicative of Tewkesbury’s deliberately alienating approach that we don’t grasp the import of these scenes until nearly halfway through the film, by which point it’s difficult to connect them to the Dianne we’ve come to know, a woman who is, by turns, mousy, playful, emotionally withdrawn, and sexually forward.
Each time that Dianne tracks down a man from her past, she seems to create a new personality for herself. With college sweetheart Jeff (Richard Jordan)—who thrice proposed marriage while they were dating and was rejected each time—she’s wistful and maternal, open to his immense affection for her and even more taken with his too-cool-for-school daughter, Dylan (Nina Jordan). But just as soon as it seems like the two might even be able to start a new life together, Dianne abruptly bugs out, determined to track down Eric (John Belushi), a high school fling who humiliated her by spreading the false rumor that she went all the way with him. With Eric, who owns a formal wear business and moonlights as a rock singer, Dianne is cunning and seductive, single-mindedly focused on exacting revenge for his cruelty. Once she does, she’s off to Milwaukee to find her first love, Lewis, only to discover he was killed years ago in Vietnam. And in lieu of reconnecting with him, Dianne attempts a strange kind of sexual therapy on his mentally ill younger brother, Wayne (Keith Carradine), whom she treats as both a clinical patient and a surrogate for her deceased old flame.
Obvious questions, such as what triggered Dianne’s crisis, remain unanswered by Paul and Leonard Schrader’s emotionally indeterminate screenplay. But Tewkesbury manages to turn the pessimism and ambivalence at the script’s core into a compellingly strange romantic psychodrama. Tewkesbury, best known for penning Robert Altman’s Nashville, made her feature debut with Old Boyfriends, and while at times the film’s shot selection and editing can feel awkward and choppy, as if Tewkesbury isn’t quite sure what emotion or narrative information she’s trying to convey. But her direction is nevertheless attentive to the specificities and peculiarities of her actors’ performances.
Belushi delivers a sweet-natured spin on the party-hard persona he made famous in Animal House, while Carradine gives a haunting and melancholy turn in an enigmatic role. But the film belongs to Shire, whose subtly shifting expressions seem to induce the film’s abrupt changes in mood and tone. She moves between being funny, sexy, wistful, and aloof, often within the same scene. Shire imbues her character with a sense of grim playfulness, the spirit of a woman with nothing to lose picking a new personality from one moment to the next as if she were trying on different outfits. When Jeff reappears in Dianne’s life, she’s faced with an opportunity at something like happiness, and she takes it. But for all her solipsistic investigation of herself, she never truly reckons with her past, nor does she ever figure out who she “really” is. Rather, Dianne simply decides who she’d like to be.