“If you had a choice would you either love a girl or have her love you?”
That is the question posited to commence the daydreamy dialogue rolling over the credits of Mike Nichol’s Carnal Knowledge. The nostalgic refrains of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” bring us in as we begin to listen to the cadence of two voices. We’ve heard those voices before probably numerous times. One has a sneering quality, and it belongs to none other than Jack Nicholson, coming off a few early classics like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. He’s got the trademark snideness in his delivery. It’s all there. The other voice is more soft-spoken and calming. It can be heard on numerous folk records of the ’60s and ’70s — the voice of Art Garfunkel.
These two men play Jonathan and Sandy, two college roommates who spend their entire lives confiding in each other as they try their hands, usually unsuccessfully, with relationships. The age-old debate between looks and brains is only one major point of contention.
There are the awkward opening moments at a college mixer. The college dorm room talks cluttered with girls, girls, and more girls. In fact, they both get tangled up mentally, emotionally, and physically with a girl named Susan (Candice Bergen).
Both leave college going off in two different directions in the realm of romantic relationships. Nicholson’s character is more about the open-minded approach keeping his options open and he thumbs his nose at any ultimatums a woman gives him. He’s his own man and he’s not going to be held down — even going berserk with his longest partner Bobbie (Ann Margret), because of her insistence on wanting more. He’s not about that but ends up cycling through the women. The irony, of course, is that although he seems like a more stable, contented than his best friend, Sandy still winds up in several different marriages just the same.
Really, the film fits somewhere in there with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate if only for the fact that Carnal Knowledge engages with broken human relationships once more. In one sense, there can be a great deal of hurt, pain, and even abuse that come out of them. But also they can be wellsprings of depth and even humor at times. What makes this film, based off of a Jules Feiffer script, is the buddy perspective. It’s the buddy perspective that you could argue that was given a facelift and re-popularized by When Harry Met Sally. And yet you can see it here as well.
There’s candid, frank, sometimes even overtly crass dialogue. And it continues through their entire lives no matter who they are with, what jobs they are in, or how their looks have changed. The conversations continue. The sobering fact is that both haven’t been able to figure things out. It doesn’t seem like they’ve come all that far from their naive college days. Jonathan now seems like a lonely dirty older man compared to a dirty young man. Sandy is enraptured by a young woman who can mystify him with her thoughts. They haven’t really changed a whole lot.
The closing moments of Carnal Knowledge are perturbing not necessarily because of what happens, but because of the realization of what these men have become (or haven’t). We see first-hand that Jonathan has fully succumbed to his own self-narcissism while Sandy tries to convince himself that he’s happy. It’s sad really.