“Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy”
Rotten Tomatoes (2/5), Metacritic (4/10), Letterboxd (2/5), Imdb.com (4/10), TMDB.com (2/5)
It’s unfortunate when a filmmaker sets out to pay tribute to a cinematic classic yet somehow manages to mangle the effort, but, regrettably, that’s precisely what happened in writer-director Nancy Buirski’s attempted homage to John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), the only X-rated release ever to win the Oscar for best picture. The scattered narrative of this poorly constructed documentary seems to focus on virtually everything except the film itself, drawing upon an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to explaining what influenced this screen epic rather than what went into the making of the picture itself. While it’s certainly enlightening and helpful to provide viewers with sufficient back story about the timing of a movie’s production and the filmmaking influences that helped shape it, these practices nevertheless become a burdensome distraction when they dominate the documentary’s content and overshadow what made its supposed subject matter so noteworthy in the first place. As a consequence, the flow of this offering is about as unwieldy as its title, jumping around from ancillary subject to ancillary subject and often providing only the most tangential connections to its alleged core material. Granted, there are a few moderately interesting anecdotes here and there, as well as a few insightful references to how “Midnight Cowboy” went on to influence a number of subsequent film productions. But even the contemporary and archive interviews with director John Schlesinger, screenwriters Waldo Salt and James Leo Herlihy, and cast members Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Brenda Vaccaro, Jennifer Salt and Bob Balaban shed little meaningful new light on this highly regarded offering. Perhaps the biggest problem here is that the underlying story of this documentary turned out to be inherently thinner than the filmmaker thought it was and that she chose to pad the material to artificially extend its length (although coming up with an entirely different narrative or editing the current one down to a film short would have made better options). It’s too bad this one fared as it has, as it’s a release that I truly looked forward to screening. It’s indeed one thing to establish a story in the context of its times and influences and to do it correctly (as was very much the case, for example, with the David Bowie documentary “Moonage Daydream” (2022)), but this offering, sadly, is a prime example of how not to do it. “Midnight Cowboy” certainly deserved better than this, and one’s time would definitely be better spent watching the original than this failed attempt at honoring it.