The Prince of Tides is a big, messy, go-for-the-throat soap opera, the sort of movie in which every third scene feels like one of those soul-spilling climaxes they use for clips on Oscar night. Adapted from Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel, this earnest, humanistic saga, which is about letting down your guard and feeling the pain, is at once extravagant and exhausting: a four-hankie therapy session. Director Barbra Streisand, who is also the costar, has no sense of dramatic balance; she gives every scene equal weight. Yet in telling the story of a man who has bottled up a lifetime of guilt and rage — and who unlocks his tormented soul with the aid of a saintly Jewish psychiatrist — the film has a shot at connecting with audiences in the way that 1980’s Ordinary People did.

Not that it’s half as good. Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), a former English teacher and football coach, lives along a tranquil South Carolina beach with his wife (Blythe Danner) and three beautiful daughters. Emotionally, he’s drowning; he no longer feels connected to anyone. In flashback, we’re shown glimpses of the family he grew up in, and it’s a hateful, repressive nightmare, with the father (Brad Sullivan), a scowling sadist, lashing out at the kids as if they were stray mutts, and the mother (Kate Nelligan) alternately soothing the children and pushing them away. Back in the present, Tom’s sister (Melinda Dillon), a published poet who is even more of a mess than he is, has made her umpteenth attempt at suicide. Tom journeys to Manhattan, a place he can’t stand, to visit her psychiatrist and help unlock the mysteries of his sister’s agony. As soon as he meets the shrink, Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Streisand), the music swells (in this movie, it rarely stops swelling), and his own feelings begin to pour out.

There are very few emotions that Nick Nolte, as an actor, is incapable of expressing. Here, he seems to be expressing every emotion at once. Tom speaks in a friendly drawl, but he’s hopped-up and weirdly energetic, like a human tornado. He rants, he grins, he yells; he seems furious and giddy at the same time. Nolte is out to create the image of someone at war with himself. But since much of the dialogue is melodramatic, even banal, his tumultuous style feels shallow and histrionic. Just watching him made me jittery.

The Prince of Tides isn’t simply overwrought; it’s all over the place. In the course of the movie, Tom works through a cathartic confrontation with his demons. He goes to parties and gets into the heady spirit of Manhattan. He investigates his sister’s schizophrenic despair, discovering that she has created an alternative identity as a poet. He starts romancing Dr. Lowenstein and learns that she’s trapped in a miserable marriage to a famous, snotty violinist (Jeroen Krabbe). He even teaches Lowenstein’s sullen son (Jason Gould) how to play football.

Streisand wants to peer into the darkness and tickle our heartstrings at the same time. Working from a screenplay by Conroy and Becky Johnston, she has pumped up the romance between Tom and Lowenstein, reducing Tom’s past to a series of semicoherent snippets. The Prince of Tides now plays like a glossy, Hollywood version of a therapist-patient relationship interspersed with Freudian footnotes. Streisand gives us endless shots of Lowenstein listening to Tom intently, raptly — ah, we’re meant to think, the wise, compassionate doctor! But as soon as the two begin taking romantic strolls outside the office, Lowenstein turns all soft and cuddly — ah, the vulnerable, womanly woman behind the therapist’s cool facade! Lowenstein isn’t so much a character as a chance for Streisand to showboat, to play a godlike healer and a pampered love object at the same time. (When she orders a meal in impeccable French, you half expect Tom to attack her like Gomez Addams.) The difference between The Prince of Tides and a movie like Ordinary People is that Streisand isn’t content with exploring human pain. She had to make it glamorous, too. C

The Prince of Tides
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