Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is one of those films which is both an obvious product of the time it was made and a criticism of those times. It is a difficult feat to be both and despite its humor and cutting critiques of the 60’s it can’t hep to fall prey to some of those same excesses and dated elements.
What makes the film a smart critique is the juxtaposition of the free-love-do-what-ever-feels-good ethic against real life. Culp and Wood’s characters attempt to live the life of complete openness, taking from a group therapy session, the idea that complete honesty always works. Yet they quickly learn that completeness isn’t everything and that emotion and the history of one’s life leads to reactions that no matter how open and honest, perhaps are best left unsaid. Moreover, when one takes that ethic outside to the wider world, it is easy to find that those ideas are yet just another way of being.
When Bob and Carol try to have the open relationship, most of it is a matter of convincing themselves that what they are doing is right. And when they take those ideas to Ted and Alice they find that not everyone is capable of an open relationship. It is those realities that make the film still interesting, not only taking to task some of the excesses of the 60’s but showing just how hard it is to live by those ideals.
For Ted and Alice the idea is not one they can truly even contemplate. Even when they get drunk enough to contemplate it, they can’t. Ted who was at first titillated by Bob’s extra marital affairs, is the shiest of all when it comes to getting in bed with everyone. Ultimately, they all realize the idea of sleep together is not what they are, but what they think they want to be now that society has become so permissive. It is that final criticism of trying to become something you are not, something that the kids are doing even though you are middle age, that makes the film still relevant today.
At times, though, the film is pure 60s. Some of the camera angles for sure, but most telling is the end of the film when the four of them leave the hotel in Las Vegas after failing to sleep together and in the street they walk around in a big circle staring at themselves and strangers up close. The behavior, first shown in the EST-like retreat Bob and Carol had attended, is supposed to be away of truly getting to understand another person’s soul. The use of the scene suggests the film makers do believe in some of what they have shown. Unfortunately, it is such a dated and over the top way of highlighting the good in expressing one’s self that it makes the ending laughable.
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is a fun jab at the 60’s even though it believes a little too strongly in some of what it criticizes.