“I’m back, and I’m gonna keep coming back every year until our bones are too brittle to risk contact.” – George (Alan Alda)
There might not be a more perfect yet messed up relation in film as in Same Time, Next Year, a play-turned-movie that features two likeable characters with dissimilar lives who wind up in a friendship that lasts longer than most marriages.
George (Alan Alda) and Doris (Ellen Burstyn) meet by chance at a secluded in and find themselves waking up in bed next to each other the next morning — even though both is happily married. The attraction between them is too much for them to forget, however, and soon they make a point of meeting every year on that same night at the lodge. As the years progress, however, their rendezvous become less about sexual passion and more about helping each other through crises caused by medical issues, the Vietnam War and 1970s business culture.
One of the most impressive things about the film is how wide its scope feels despite its set being a single hotel bungalow. Alda and Burstyn portray the same characters but at different times of their lives, often switching places. They have the same mannerisms (George is very Hawkeye Pierce-like in delivery, for obvious reasons, but has nervous ticks like the phrase “All right, I didn’t think it through”), but the context surrounding them changes the way they present themselves — hence the most interesting and driving point of the film. They adapt to each other, no matter what, and part of it has to do with the shock incurred by their rare meetings.
One year, Doris arrives as a hippie who’s crass compared to George’s straight-laced CPA-hood. The next year, she’s a successful entrepreneur who’s over free love while her counterpart is just arriving there thanks to personal tragedy and a new anti-war stance. But even as they miss each other on the social scale, they always find a way to help each other through the dark spots of life.
It might seem outlandish that all of this is because of one night a year. “Why do you have to look so luminous?” George asks her. “I mean, it’d make things so much easier if you woke up with puffy eyes and blotchy skin like everyone else.” He probably would see Doris in less of an angelic light if he saw her more than once every 365 days, but that would defeat the purpose their relationship. If Doris and George ended up together — which it appears like they will as each loses their significant other to divorce or death — they wouldn’t have the outsider’s approach to each others problems, which means they might not be as well-suited for the relationship. It also might mean the end of their attraction to one another. As George learns one year, even a 9-month pregnancy can’t keep him from wanting Doris. In that way, Same Time, Next Year portrays a very balanced relationship hinged on the prospect of having a limited amount of time together.
Does that make for a healthy romance? Probably not — but it certainly makes for a fantastic movie.