Stanley Kubrick's got stones, you gotta give him that. Few would dare to adapt Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel about the love affair between a tormented pedophile and a precocious and flirtatious 12-year-old, and certainly not in 1962. Even fewer would hire Nabokov himself to write the screenplay and then change the story from underneath him. That boldness makes Lolita certainly an interesting entry into the director's canon, even if it's far from essential.
Kubrick opens the film at its end, when a crazed man (James Mason) breaks into the home of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). After a tense build-up filled with accusations that Quilty stole away his love, the man finally shoots him dead. We then flash back to four years earlier, when the man, Humbert Humbert, first arrived in America and moved to New Hampshire in order to be a guest lecturer at college. He finds a possible room to rent, let by Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), a sexually-longing widow who makes overt passes to Hum. He's all ready to decline the apartment because of this, but then he spots Charlotte's daughter Dolores, nicknamed Lolita (Sue Lyon). Only 14 years old, Lolita immediately grabs the attention of Humbert, who agrees to stay in the room in order to be near her.
As Humbert grapples with his sexual desires by writing them down in his diary, Charlotte falls hopelessly in love with her tenant. When Charlotte takes her daughter to a summer-long camp (much to Hum's agony, of course), she leaves her crush a note that says she loves him and he better be gone before she gets back because she can't take the pain. Unless, of course, Hum feels the same way. Seeing the opportunities in permanently staying in the same house as Lolita, he accepts.
Humbert and Charlotte's brief marriage sports some of the most darkly funny lines in the film. Hum clearly looks bored with his wife from the start, but she drags him into the bedroom desperate for sex. "When you touch me I go as limp as a noodle," she gasps breathlessly; Hum deadpans, "Yes, I know the feeling." At last, Charlotte discovers the incriminating diary, and runs from the house in anger and pain, only to be killed by a car. Charlotte's friends visit Humbert while he's in the bath and mistake his ennui and apathy for suicidal depression. The insurance man stops by to inform the widower that because his wife ran out into the street in the rain, her death is her fault and thus the company doesn't have to pay. "Technically, you're absolutely right" Humbert says dispassionately. "My, you're being so nice about this I'd like to offer to pay for the funeral service...It's the least I can do!" the agent beams.
The tone then abruptly shifts as Humbert goes to pick up Lolita and, in effect, we suddenly get a road movie. Humbert and Lolita travel from hotel to hotel as father and daughter while a sexual relationship develops. As this is 1962, the relationship is of course more implied than explicit, veiled in entendre and allusions. The two finally return home and Lolita must cope with her mother's death while returning to school. Whenever Lolita eats lunch with boys her age, Humbert bursts into jealous rages and even encourages her to leave school. It's a testament to the man's wretched state that he, a professor, actively strives to rob someone of her education. Of course, Lolita only sees it as an excuse never to have to study again, so she agrees, and the two set out on the road once more.
Along the way Humbert notices a car following them, and Quilty pops up all over the place in disguise, masking his own desire for Lolita while trying to pry information out of his makeshift rival. Lolita comes down with a cold and, when Humbert goes to pick her up from the hospital, he learns that his love has been kidnapped. The film flashes forward a few years when Humbert finally tracks her down, now a 17-year-old and pregnant with her husband's child. She reveals that Quilty kidnapped her, driving us back to the beginning.
There's plenty to like about the film, chiefly James Mason's tortured performance. Kubrick cuts out any of Humbert's backstory, so we have no context for his emotions. Therefore, it's up to Mason to make him something more than a two-dimensional pedophile, and he generally succeeds. Shelley Winters likewise excels as Charlotte: she's dense and foolish, but she has an honesty and a longing that makes her genuinely pitiable. I would have liked to seen her grapple with the revelation of who her husband really loved more, but Kubrick isn't one to focus on emotion.
Also, of course, the visuals are superb; it's almost redundant to mention the look of a Stanley Kubrick film, but every Stanley Kubrick film overwhelms with its crisp and perfect constructed imagery. Kubrick also manages to delve into the situation of Humbert and Lolita's love affair while never getting too lewd nor burying the themes too much in order to pass censors. Kubrick always had a taste for dark humor, but it's on display throughout here: What convinced you to take the room, asks Charlotte when Humbert agrees to the lease. As he stares at Lolita, he drawls "I think it was your cherry pies." If I have to explain that innuendo, you didn't listen to enough glam metal as a kid.
Unfortunately, the film suffers noticeably. Kubrick's condensation of the novel resulted in some strange gaps in narrative. Apart from not getting to know Humbert, we cut forward after Humbert finds that Lolita was kidnapped, removing out any real emotional anguish. Yet despite these cuts, the film is looooonng. At 156 minutes, it lacks enough emotional connection or interesting scenes to keep up the pace and to make the length worth it.
Most distracting is Quilty. Now, I love Peter Sellers. No, let me go back for a moment--I LOVE Peter Sellers. I'd like to find a way to resurrect him and make him President if I could; sure, he wouldn't fix anything but at least we'd go out laughing. But Quilty pops up far too much and adds nothing to the story. Apparently he's a background figure in the novel, barely appearing at all, and that's how it should have been here. Nevertheless, Sellers does steal a few scenes as he runs through the gamut of his accents as the ever-disguised Quilty, and he's entertaining even if he takes away from the main story.
Kubrick is trying to examine sexual relationships and how we often define ourselves by them, but this story requires a lot more emotion than he gives it. Kubrick always removed the human element of his stories, examining his subjects as impassively as a scientist monitoring rats, but there's a lot of anguish here that needs to come to the fore. Kubrick would handle just about all of the themes of this film far better in his swan song, the muted Eyes Wide Shut, which filtered sex through the frigidity of social propriety. Now, I believe, as with Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick never made a bad film; the worst thing I can say about one of his works is that I wouldn't want to watch it over and over again. And I'd only ever say that about this and Killer's Kiss. Not a bad track record, when you think about it.