April 7, 2010

Lolita (1962)
Grade: 67/100

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: James Mason, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers

What it's about. This notorious pitch black comedy stars the always mellifluous James Mason as Professor Humbert, a fifty-ish Englishman who is fixated with the hottie post-pubescent daughter of his shrill nymphomaniac widowed landlord, Mrs. Haze, played spot-on by Shelley Winters.

Humbert weds Haze in order to have continued access to the comely and teasing Lolita (Sue Lyon), who is now his step-daughter. It seems that Humbert's dubious plans for Lolita will have to be shelved once Haze is determined to send her mettlesome daughter away to boarding school.

An accident takes Haze out of the way, but fate puts a further obstacle between Humbert and his underage dream girl in the form of eccentric and ubiquitous playwright Quilty (Peter Sellers). Quilty also has a thing for Lolita, but takes special delight in tormenting the increasingly pathetic Humbert. Humbert gets revenge by murdering Quilty, which is not a spoiler since this occurs just after the opening credits.

How others will see it. Despite its controversial theme of a middle-aged man obsessed with a fourteen-year-old girl, Lolia was well received by critics. The movie did best at the Golden Globes, where Mason, Winters, Kubrick, and even Peter Sellers were nominated. The widely-seen movie also has high user ratings at imdb.com, with two exceptions: women under 18 and over 45. The former are likely indignant at Lyon's duplicitous, selfish, and flirtatious character, while the latter are presumably repulsed at Mason's machinations, jealousy, and boundless infatuation.

How I felt about it. Professor Humbert is the ultimate hypocrite. Except where Lolita is concerned, he pretends to be this well respected and erudite intellectual. In truth, he has a relationship with his step-daughter that could get him imprisoned in any of the 50 states.

We are supposed to take nearly sadistic pleasure in Humbert's often desperate desire to be with Lolita, who teases and manipulates him but never actually loves him in return. Some would say that Lolita is too immature to love anyone. She has a crush on Quilty, but that affair ends quickly once she is living with him. Even at the film's end, she admits to not being in love with her husband. This lack of love is a weakness of her character and not of her age.

Humbert can never be happy with Lolita. Their age difference makes the relationship socially unacceptable, and probably illegal. He is also unreasonably jealous of Lolita, which prompts her concern, "You're sick." This is a reference not to his sexual desire for her, which is criminal, but to his aggressive and argumentative possessiveness, which is not. She understands his attraction to her. It's his jealousy that exasperates her.

Technically, Humbert is a pedophile. But he remains obsessed with Lolita even after she is a married and pregnant adult. He also shows no interest in the other girls at the camp or at the play. One can argue that Humbert led a peaceful, self-satisfied, and asexual life bathed in literature prior to seeing Lolita in the garden. Thereafter, his life is a roller coaster of pleasure, angst, and despair. Certainly, he was better off before he met her, when his social activity consisted of fending off passes from the likes of Shelley Winters and Diana Decker.

The real curiosity here is Peter Sellers, who goes to great lengths to traumatize Humbert before finally stealing his girl. There is no purpose, for example, in calling Humbert in the middle of the night while he is fighting a chest cold. No purpose, that is, except to pester Humbert further, which is so much fun since Humbert tries so hard to pretend he is something that he isn't: a normal guy.