During the grim, glum cacophony of images and sounds that constitutes the first few minutes of The Arrangement, a self-loathing advertising wizard (Kirk Douglas) with a stultifying marriage and a career focused on selling "Zephyr, The Clean Cigarette!" impulsively hits upon a spectacular method of committing suicide. Viewers would have been spared two hours of further flailing if he'd succeeded. Instead we get a combination psychodrama and Bildungsroman--at once crashingly obvious and fragmented to the point of incoherence--that attempts to frame the betrayal of the American Dream through the guilty/proud machismo, professional frustrations, and oppressive ethnic heritage of a very unappealing guy.
At least credit writer-director Elia Kazan, adapting his own bestselling novel, with honesty: the guy is, essentially, he himself. The once-great filmmaker hoped to reunite with Marlon Brando on the project; he wound up with Douglas, whose career-long image was the guy with the indomitable spirit no matter what ("I'm Spartacus!"). But dismay over Douglas's miscasting--which led to the miscasting of Faye Dunaway in a mistress role based on and intended for Barbara Loden--doesn't excuse the total mishmash. Scenes begin in the middle or break off without warning; some characters are introduced portentously, then abandoned or beaten as one-note Symbols. The technique is a mélange of ugly, puerile effects, including still photos absurdly sprung to life and a daydream sequence studded with BIFF! BAM! POW! comic-book titles. There's even a desperate dive into self-quotation, a snippet of Kazan's 1963 America America to establish that a character barely seen in The Arrangement is the aged version of the youthful protagonist of that exultant masterpiece.
For the record, the cast includes Deborah Kerr as Douglas's wife and Richard Boone as his terminally Old World dad. They didn't deserve to come off as badly as they do. --Richard T. Jameson