Concluding Case File #37: Moment By Moment

Concluding Case File #37: Moment By Moment

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were a financial flop, critical failure, or lack a substantial cult following.

Cinematic chemistry is a strange and unpredictable beast. Oftentimes couples conceivably having mind-blowing offscreen sex come off like people who can barely tolerate each other’s company onscreen, as in the case of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli. The boilerplate romantic comedy calls for people who originally can’t stand each to fall hopelessly in love by the film’s end. But what happens when the star-crossed lovers who originally seem like they can’t stand each other still seem to feel that way long after they’re supposed to be on their way to a happy ending? 

That’s the case in 1978’s Moment By Moment, a film that has come to personify miscasting and explosive anti-chemistry the same way the slightly more fruitful pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn has come to personify chemistry. Moment By Moment has a lot to teach casting directors about chemistry. For starters, if you’re making a heterosexual romance about a sexual bond so potent it transcends age and class, it’s good if at least one of the leads sends out at least a mildly heterosexual vibe. Secondly, if a film is about a May-to-December romance, the leads should probably not look so alike that they more often come off like an incestuous mother-and-son team than conventional lovers. 

Moment By Moment exacerbates this surreal miscalculation by inexplicably giving leads John Travolta and Lily Tomlin (whom I have collectively dubbed “Tratomlin”) pretty much the exact same unflattering haircut, so that they sometimes look like gender-and-age-switched variations on the same person. Physically, Travolta and Tomlin look enough alike for their sexual congress to seem creepy, incestuous, and weirdly masturbatory, but personality-wise they have so little in common that when Tomlin repeatedly tells Travolta, she loves him it not only rings hilariously false; it also cheapens the concept of “love.”

So while Travolta’s triumphs in the mid- to late-’70s like Carrie, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Welcome Back Kotter enjoy a healthy afterlife on lunchboxes, special-edition DVD re-releases, and sing-along theatrical re-releases, Moment By Moment has been relegated to the land of wind and ghosts along with other cinematic orphans no studio or star wants to claim. Despite the names involved, it has never been available on home video in any form, and that includes Beta, VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. 

The film has been so hard to find, legally or otherwise, that during an AVQ&A I singled it out as the unattainable art I would like to track down the most, trumping more obvious examples like Jerry Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried. Thankfully, the Internet is a generous entity, and I was soon deluged with offers to send me bootleg copies of the film for this column. 

Moment By Moment opens with bored, soon-to-be-divorced housewife Lily Tomlin strutting down Rodeo Drive against a backdrop of smooth jazz seemingly designed to lull the audience into a state of drowsiness. If many Hollywood films from the ’70s have the jagged, amped-up, excitable rhythms of cocaine, Moment By Moment feels like a production where everyone was nearly comatose from too much Valium. 

Writer-director Jane Wagner—who has collaborated for so long and so extensively and intricately with Tomlin that their creative DNA is hopelessly intertwined—highlights the brand-name emptiness of Tomlin’s comfortably soul-sucking existence, lingering on on the label “Gucci” as Tomlin struts past the same way Bret Easton Ellis obsessed about the brand names that made up his protagonist’s spectral but expensive identity in American Psycho. 

At Schwab’s Pharmacy, where Lana Turner was allegedly discovered, Travolta runs into Tomlin being told by the pharmacist that unfortunately he’ll need to talk to her doctor before giving her a refill on the sleeping pill Seconal. In Moment By Moment, John Travolta stars as the kind of rudderless hustler who forever needs to see “a guy” about “a thing” that invariably involves drugs or some other minor scheme. His life is unbound by the responsibilities endemic in having a job or a career or even a permanent home address. He’s an inveterate migrant tied down by nothing. Tomlin, in sharp contrast, is tied down by everything. She envies his freedom; he envies her life of wealth and privilege, unaware just how empty and unsatisfying it feels from the inside. 

After their encounter at Schwab’s, Travolta follows Tomlin like he’s a lost puppy in search of a home, talking to hear himself talk and to fill dead air, but also because he seems to think that if he just keeps talking, eventually he’ll say something that will make Tomlin forget that she is a wealthy married lady (albeit in the midst of a divorce) of leisure of a certain age and he is a teenaged hustler of ill repute. 

Throughout the first 27 minutes of the movie, Tomlin treats Travolta like a giant mosquito that has somehow acquired the ability to make incredibly irritating small talk. Travolta barrels past her clear dislike for him, ignoring social cues, facial expressions, and just about everything else in his dogged determination to win over Tomlin in spite of her clear and eminently justifiable contempt for him. 

Some people’s personalities make them more attractive. Some people’s personalities make them less attractive. In Moment By Moment, Travolta’s character is so unbelievably annoying in the early going that it almost negates the actor’s physical beauty and magnetism. Make no mistake, when he made Moment By Moment, Travolta wasn’t just handsome. No, he possessed a pouty, feminine beauty and a beautifully sculpted body that is on full display throughout the film. He was gorgeous, but even the prospect of a young John Travolta lolling about in various states of undress wasn’t enough to lure audiences to the theaters during one hell of a hot streak for the actor. At a time when Travolta could seemingly do no wrong—commercially, at least—he starred in a movie that literally does nothing right, one so bizarrely off that it borders on avant-garde. 

Travolta invests his desperate striver with an intense, rapacious neediness that’s at once pathetic and strangely ingratiating. At its best, the character suggests a primitive, beta version of Mark Wahlberg’s character in Boogie Nights (Travolta even lists being in a porn film as one of the options available to a man of his unusual skill set; while in Boogie Nights, Wahlberg tellingly has a poster of Travolta on his wall): He’s all aching, poignant hunger and desperation. Also like Mark Wahlberg at the beginning of Boogie Nights, Travolta here at once possesses everything—youth, beauty, energy, sexuality, the promise of a more exciting tomorrow—and nothing, in the sense that he has no job prospects, no skills, and no real vehicle for his restless, misplaced ambition beyond random scams and a gift for sweet-talking wealthy women. Travolta is hungering for a homemade, makeshift version of the American dream and fetishizes the empty accoutrements of Tomlin’s life of upscale, name-brand ennui. He desperately longs for the status symbols that give Tomlin no joy and highlight the expensive emptiness of her existence. 

Travolta takes tiny little moments he shared with Tomlin and creates universes of meaning out of them. Back when he worked as a valet, for example, Tomlin’s cheating husband falsely accused Travolta of denting their Mercedes-Benz, and Tomlin defended Travolta. For Tomlin, it was a forgettable matter of common decency and honesty, but to Travolta it revealed something pure and beautiful and compassionate and kind at Tomlin’s core. Travolta similarly makes a whole lot out of running into Tomlin seeking sleeping pills at the pharmacy. At various moments in the film, Travolta presents himself alternately as a drug dealer who can get her anything she needs (early in the seduction he tells her, “Since you’re into pills, I can get you any kind of mood-changers that you want”) and a weirdly judgmental scold who says things like, “Like, I don’t like to encourage pill-popping,” and sternly rejects Tomlin’s offer to smoke pot with him, despite his earlier repeated assertions that she needed something to mellow her out. 

It isn’t just Tomlin’s use of sleeping pills that inexplicably and unconvincingly fascinates the easily fascinated Travolta; he’s also driven into an erotic tizzy at the thought of her tossing and turning and sternly looking at her clock while wracked by insomnia. In what passes for flirtation in the movie, Travolta tells a clearly annoyed Tomlin that he likes to think about her sleeplessness (which is a really weird fetish, and I write that as a lifelong insomniac) and, “It’s unlikely I’ll stop thinkin’ about it.” 

Travolta was at the height of his beauty when he made Moment By Moment, yet Tomlin looks at him not with lust but with the barely concealed exasperation of a kindergarten teacher confronted with an overly excitable child who simply will not shut up. 

In the film’s interminable yet weirdly hypnotic first act, Tomlin conveys the warmth and approachability of a terrified porcupine; her soul is a fortress protected by so many layers of defenses that only a fool would attempt to scale them. Yet Travolta is undeterred all the same: He wants this cold, not particularly attractive middle-aged woman who repeatedly rebuffs him. He simply will not take no for an answer when everything in the universe is begging him to do so, particularly Tomlin’s oft-reiterated requests for him to go away. 

Travolta eventually succeeds in wearing down Tomlin’s defenses, and when he comes to her in a state of grief and panic upon learning that his buddy Greg has died, Tomlin consoles him in a sex scene that must be seen to be disbelieved. 

Travolta’s semen must contain some manner of powerful mood-alterer, because after experiencing sexual bliss with him, Tomlin’s personality changes dramatically. A note of joy and playfulness enters what was previously a peeved monotone, and her angry glare melts into a warm smile as she unconvincingly falls instantly in love with a man she has previously treated like misbehaving household help. 

Tomlin isn’t the only one who undergoes a dramatic and unconvincing transformation. Before she breaks down and has sex with him, Travolta acts as if he’d happily sleep in a pile of shit in her front yard just to be closer to her. But after they make sweet, passionate, cringe-inducing love, he angrily demands a real, substantive relationship, not just a sordid sexual fling. Tomlin isn’t ready to make that leap until he storms out in disgust, and she spends seemingly the rest of the film looking for him. 

Lily Tomlin made her name playing a dizzying array of broad comic types on Laugh-In, but Moment By Moment sometimes suggests a feature-length SCTV parody of a hilariously overheated hothouse Tennessee Williams melodrama about the doomed love between an older woman and younger man. The film has no sense of humor about itself or its unlikely lovers, so the voluminous laughter it engenders is strictly of the unintentional variety. 

In its first act, Moment By Moment at least attempts to be an artsy, archetypal, 1970s character study about alienated outsiders separated by an impregnable divide of age and class. But once Travolta and Tomlin make the beast with two backs and become Tratomlin, the film loses its nerve and becomes a conventional romantic drama about a woman desperately trying to hold onto her younger lover in the midst of widespread public disapproval and Travolta’s own mercurial emotions. The film’s wavering commitment to romantic-drama conventions extends to a happy ending as poorly conceived and wildly unconvincing as everything that came before. 

Moment By Moment is a film where every miscalculation amplifies the last. The coma-inducing pacing is further hindered by a smooth-jazz score that dares audiences to stay awake during endless, seemingly interchangeable scenes of Travolta jabbering endlessly. Tomlin is rightly regarded as one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, but Moment By Moment perversely casts her in a role devoid of humor and self-deprecation. The editing is so slack that it often feels like we’re watching unedited rushes, not a finished film. 

It’s hard to watch Moment By Moment in 2013 and not secretly see it as the story of a middle-aged lesbian who gets her groove back by having mind-blowing sex with her gay son. Moment By Moment was directed by Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s life partner as well as her professional partner: It had to be weird for Wagner to watch her partner pretend to have sex with a man she clearly is not sexually attracted to, but not, somehow, less weird than it is for the audience. As with so many of the films I have chronicled here, suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. The brain rebels violently against the idea that Travolta and Tomlin could possibly be lovers, let alone destined for a happy ending together. 

At the time, Moment By Moment appeared to be an anomaly in Travolta’s otherwise charmed career, the sole dud in a dazzling string of musical, cinematic, and television triumphs. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, it now looks like the first stirrings of the curious camp figure Travolta would become, a walking punchline who would become synonymous not with his iconic and massive early successes but rather his abundant and extraordinarily public later failures. Travolta was a great winner, but he somehow makes for an even better loser. That’s enough to make him the poster boy for My World Of Flops, along with his Face/Off buddy Nicolas Cage.  

Moment By Moment was the first real flop in a failure-festooned career for John Travolta, so it seems like a good note to end My World Of Flops on. After 16 years here at The A.V. Club, and many years of writing first My Year Of Flops, then the My Year Of Flops book, and then My World Of Flops, I have decided to leave. This decision was not an easy one, in large part because I love writing columns like this so goddamn much and will desperately miss writing for such a smart, dedicated, and indulgent readership. 

I cannot overstate the importance of My Year Of Flops to my life and my career. It gave me an identity and a mission in life. In standing up for lost, lonely, misunderstood cinematic orphans, I found myself as a writer and a critic. This has been a wonderful journey, but like all journeys, it must end. 

Thank you for all these years of loyalty and readership. They mean the world to me. You have made a guy whose life and career have been chockablock with failure feel like a real success. For that, I will always be grateful. 

Failure, fiasco, or secret success: Fiasco