Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Directed by Mike Nichols; Written by Jules Feiffer

An Updike-Roth hybrid of male sexuality and toxicity

In the dark of night, two boys discuss love, feelings, and partners. Their hushed voices go back and forth with a confessional cadence as these wish-to-be lovers discuss the prospect of sex, intimacy, even love with a telling insecurity. As things go on, hormonal inertia drags the conversation to ideal partners, and one boy describes the girl he wants: “big tits,” to which the other responds: “Yeah… but still a virgin.” 

A three-part story of two men’s sexual development in college through middle age, Carnal Knowledge is another of Nichols’ barbed explorations of the mess of sex and love. Here it’s a deep-dive in coming-of-age male sexuality turned toxic and the ugly emotions it can elicit when men struggle to differentiate between the wants of their two heads, not to mention the wreckage they can create as they stumble forward.  

The result is disconcerting, darkly comic, and provocative. Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel deliver crystal-cut performances as two boys-turned-manchildren who in each their own way show how two very different boys can turn into equally adrift men. Jack Nicholson stars as Jonathan, whose now-iconic eyebrows and randy energy makes him out to be someone who has a hormonal Texas longhorn for a spirit animal, and alongside him is Garfunkel’s Sandy, an ostensibly sensitive type who doesn’t shy from weaponizing that image in order to get what he wants.  

Together, they stay close over the years as frenemies brought on by their own emotional turmoil that neither is equipped to really deal with. Feiffer’s excellent script delivers one incisive line after another and Garfunkel and Nicholson wield them like double-edged swords. Feiffer’s writing succeeds in everything it attempts, from subdued, terse encounters, to blistering confrontations, even monologues delivered like asides, where the audience is privy to both men revealing themselves without really realizing to what extent. 

Each act is strong enough to stand on its own, but together it’s a rich, wry portrait of Jonathan in particular as a cross between Roth’s Portnoy and Updike’s Angstrom, appearing as a devil undone by his own urges, entitlement and deep-rooted frustration in never being fulfilled and not knowing what it’ll take to get there.  

Going on 50, Carnal Knowledge doesn’t show its age. The world is still full of Jonathans and Sandys, and it’s something to watch a film that goes right at these emotionally stunted men, when their behavior is something we wouldn’t learn to publicly condemn until decades later. Adroit, inspired writing brought to life by committed performances from both Nicholson and Garfunkel. 

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