Psychiatrist Joe (Rip Torn) has a set up a camera in his apartment where he can film what goes on in his living room without his guests, be they patients or otherwise, being any the wiser. So his sexual conquests are recorded surreptitiously, but his approaching mental breakdown is also being documented. We see only what the camera sees, and the footage jumps around frequently, as now it is showing Joe trying to stay interested in a woman with sadomasochistic tendencies, as her weird behaviour isn't really his thing. But what is?
The writer and director of Coming Apart, Milton Moses Ginsberg (maybe best known for his satirical Werewolf of Washington), had an idea in his mind of how he wanted his debut to turn out, and having worked on T.V.'s Candid Camera must have given him a notion of how to handle his main character's mental disintegration. What Ginsberg wanted was a hard to fathom art movie like his personal favourites were, a film like Last Year at Marienbad for example, but on its initial release, a disaster on a small but nonetheless dispiriting scale for him, he could have been forgiven for thinking he had a turkey on his hands.
You might be forgiven for thinking that too, because the work is frustratingly difficult to stay engaged with. It might have helped if Joe was an interesting character, but even he succumbs to the art film's cliché of abrasive introspection. What that means is a lot of railing and yelling, and not only by Joe either, but by those he invites back to his apartment. We know he's married, we know he's a psychiatrist, but additionally we know he's full of his own self-importance judging by the fact that he's keen to record his home life for posterity.
And yet, Coming Apart won a following, a minor one but a following for all that, among those who appreciated what Ginsberg was attempting to do in his barrier-bending. The film is sexually explicit for the year it was made, depicting oral sex at one point, but is not pornographic as the static camera works against much in the way of involvement with the plight of Joe or the others, mainly women, who accompany him home. For the first twenty minutes or so, it looks to be all about the conquests, and can be quite funny in their depiction, but then Joe's mental state begins to dominate.
Unfortunately for Ginsberg, someone has already beaten him to the whole home movie angle, and had done it better: Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary; here things are devoid of the wit necessary to stave off the tedium that inevitably hits the story. Staring at Joe's sofa, which has a huge mirror behind it so we can see what else is going on, becomes a less than fascinating experience, even if the women take their clothes off with regularity (as does Joe). The nature of the protagonists' spiral into despair grows obscure, and Sally Kirkland's Joann, who is set up as his nemesis if the way she brandishes a gun at the end is anything to go by, is as brave a performance as Torn's without really paying off. In spite of the supposed realism, there's no escaping the artificiality of Coming Apart and the self-destruction on display is wearisome. Too often one contemplates why anyone would want to film what we see.