Maria Wyeth (Tuesday Weld) used to be a model until she turned to acting, but a few years down the line her career has not gone the way she would have wanted and her personal life is even worse. Because of this, she has been admitted to a mental institution to recuperate and try to get her life back on track, but she finds the analysis and questions she has to endure there are no help whatsoever, preferring to wander the gardens of the hospital's grounds. As she meanders through the greenery, she remembers what has brought her to this stage, and those relationships that have never really worked out...
For a while, director Frank Perry looked to be setting out in the new advances of American cinema of the late sixties and early seventies, one man in a revolutionary tide to meld the commercial with the artistic and experimental, but he was never truly at the forefront of a movement that petered out before long, leaving such endeavours to the lesser watched indie scene that emerged later. Certainly a work such as this adaptation of Joan Didion's novel Play It As It Lays was no help to furthering this career path, as it was judged a failure on its first release, too much for the mainstream to handle and falling short as far as its creative ambition went, leaving a muddle of cut-up sequences.
But in that unorthodox approach, some found a reason to be captivated by the lives of the rich and famous as depicted here, lives which are put across as singularly unfulfilling. The only relationship that Maria achieves any satisfaction from is with filmmaker B.Z., as played by Anthony Perkins in contrast to his and Weld's other notable movie together, Pretty Poison. Here, as there, they complement each other with an absorbing quality that seems to speak of more connections than the characters ever give voice to, so perhaps, as star followers would like to believe, the actors have an understanding as legendarily troubled performers that informs their efforts in this.
Oddly, Maria and B.Z.'s relationship is never a romantic one, and undoubtedly never a sexual one even though it has the properties of soulmates. The love side to Maria's existence revolves around her cult director husband Carter, played by Adam Roarke who in a nod to his exploitation work has made a biker movie that Maria starred in. His position is more of a mentor to Maria, and not one she entirely feels comfortable with, especially as we see clips of an earlier collaboration they made, a documentary about her where he questions her to the point where she breaks down on camera. But nobody can really satisfy her, as she floats through the film in a state of spiritual malaise that never lets up.
The overall effect of all this general dissatisfaction is that you end up allowing scene after scene of Maria failing to fulfil herself to wash over you, not assisted by the fact that almost every sequence in the film has the same tone, a muted, sleepy and enervated one, making it no surprise to learn that audiences can leave the film in pretty much the same frame of mind as they started the movie with. In its favour, the acting by the three leads is superb, with Weld possibly offering her best performance and matching Perkins every step of the way in the aching ennui stakes, but when Maria goes for an abortion in the same style as she sets out to find a childhood friend she seems to be implying getting away from it all might be the best course of action; she needs to forget herself for a while as all her self-absorption isn't doing her any good at all.
American director who worked closely with his wife Eleanor Perry to create some curious work throughout the sixties: David and Lisa, Ladybug Ladybug, The Swimmer, Last Summer and Diary of a Mad Housewife.