BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE starts off as if a stoned hippie with an 8mm cam began to film cinema verite and did not wish to infringe on the rights of an equally stoned cast to get the scene right in the first take. Somewhere in this turgid bloated mess of a psychodrama are some unpleasant truths about the way married couples confront personal and sexual disconnections, but this relevant set of subtexts is hidden under an annoying coating of a 60s mentality of free love, beads, primal scream therapy, and groupsex, all of which date what otherwise have been some eternal truisms.
Robert Culp is Bob, a 40 something successful businessman who is less a fully-fleshed individual than a stereotyped hippie weekend wannabe who wants the freedom to have affairs but is unwilling to give his wife Carol (Natalie Wood) the same right. Bob is not just a man in search of himself. He comes across as an annoying pest who likes to think of himself as a new age guru who believes that he personifies the adage of Do Your Own Thing. Naturally, anyone who dares to show conventional middle class moral objections to his philandering is dismissed as a fuddy duddy out of touch with his own feelings. Carol is even less of a believable person as she skates through life with her feet barely touching the moral ground of life. Director Paul Mazursky allows the viewer to get an idea of how and why Bob and Carol think and act. At the start of the film, they attend a group interaction session led by a therapist who exhorts his patients to engage in some questionable methods: they scream, beat pillows, gawk about the room, and stare into one another's eyes as if to connect on a visual level.
Ted (Eliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) are more open with their vulnerabilities, and hence engage us more. Both are disgusted at first with the open fooling around of Bob and Carol. Ted wants more frequent sex with Alice but does not know how to handle her rejection of him. Despite his geekiness, Ted comes across as a reasonably moral man whose own limits are soon to be tested first by a wife whose burgeoning sexuality snaps to attention then later by his own crumbling wall of marital fidelity.
The second half of the film is more interesting than that of the first. The cloying irritability that dominates the first half is replaced by several humorous, yet revealing vignettes that culminate with all four in bed and not knowing or daring what to do. The hesitant expressions on their faces suggest that morality is not a blanket to be donned or doffed at will. BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE is a potent, if misguided moral fairy tale that warns us that the freedom to be superficially open may in fact be nothing more than a license to hide behind that blanket of openness.