Writer-director Alan Rudolph analyzes the deteriorating marriages of two couples in Afterglow. But while he gets a couple of good performances, the end result is as detached and distant as the marriages in the film.
Lucky and Phyllis Mann (Nick Nolte and Julie Christie) have a bruised, faltering marriage. After a tragic pivotal moment in their marriage several years before, the two have not been intimate, but, rather, each has retreated into a self-obsessed world to nurse their wounds. Lucky finds his release by tending to more than the plumbing at the homes he visits during his rounds as a fix-it man. Phyllis, an ex-B-movie-actress, compulsively watches her old movies and dwells on what might have been.
Another couple, Jeffrey and Marianne Byron (Jonny Lee Miller and Lara Flynn Boyle), are having marital problems of their own. Jeffrey is so entirely focused on his work that he gives the cold-shoulder to his wife. Marianne, hungry for affection, resolves to have a baby, with or without her husband.
The two marriages begin to entwine when Marianne sets her sights upon Lucky to be the father of her child. Meanwhile, unaware of their spouse’s deeds, Phyllis and Jeffrey kick off an affair of their own.
The obvious strength of the film is its acting, particularly by the Manns. Julie Christie returns to fine form as the most complex character in the film. Nolte does nearly as good a job as the emotionally numb fix-it man. The younger actors have a tough time keeping up. Lara Flynn Boyle is sympathetic as Mrs. Byron, but we never get a look inside Jonny Lee Miller’s head. His character is intensely unlikable, and is constantly doing strange things, but we never get a sense of why.
Beyond its characters, Afterglow begins to stall. The plotting of the film relies too heavily on coincidence, and with all the affairs going on, there is no real sense of passion in the film. That very well may be the point, but it lends itself to a rather tedious viewing experience.
Still, as a character piece, the film does keep you interested. Eventually, the film begins to unwrap its characters, it just takes its own sweet time in doing so. The end result is slightly interesting, but not enthralling.
The film is best seen as an acting showcase, and in that light it glows. Not too brightly, but enough to be mildly diverting.