One dark and stormy night, constitutional grump Sam (Jerry Stiller) comes home to his long-suffering but equally constitutionally sweet wife, Molly (Anne Meara), two fresh bakery buns in one hand and a live fish in the other. As any sensible person would, she refuses to cook the squirming ichthyoid for her husband, but that’s just fine: Sam has no such plans for the fish, his new pet, and he proceeds to turn the bathtub into a makeshift tank where the scaly thing splashes about and scares the pants off of his granddaughter.
This development goes over poorly with Molly, and that’s A Fish in the Bathtub (1999) in a nutshell: 90 minutes of a decades-long marriage going busto over Sam’s baffling wish to keep a fish companion. The films of Joan Micklin Silver enjoyed a reexamination in 2019: Between the Lines, her tale of a Boston alt-weekly sinking in a world of new media, received a handsome Blu-ray release over the summer, and A Fish in the Bathtub went into circulation at New York’s Quad Cinema in November, a worthy capper to the contemporary evaluation of her frankly underappreciated career. Though the movie is a less acknowledged chapter in Stiller’s own, his recent passing is as good a reason as any to revisit this showcase for his multifaceted talents, as well as his abiding love for Meara.
Married for 61 years until her death in 2015, rest her spirit, Stiller & Meara get a chance to perform marriage in A Fish in the Bathtub, which means they get to litigate matrimonial vicissitudes throughout. Silver’s film allows them to put their own marriage through stress tests. What do they gain, and what does the audience gain, from watching them bicker, argue, and then suffer an explosive disagreement in front of their friends?
The outside perspective Silver applies to A Fish in the Bathtub compliments the designs of the screenplay (a team effort between John Silverstein, David Chudnovsky and her husband, Raphael D. Silver). When Sam pushes Molly beyond her limit during an evening couples game night—the men play poker while the women drink tea—neither makes an attempt to hide their animosity. This isn’t an instance of cutesy disagreement: Stiller plays to the hilt Sam’s intolerable curmudgeonliness, barking, ranting, slamming the window shut after Molly opens it to waft out the cumulonimbus cloud of cigar smoke choking the room. The evening ends when she breaks down crying in plain view of their assembled company.
A Fish in the Bathtub plays with visual fractures alongside textual ones. Silver frames that game night meltdown with her camera pulled back, aimed at the half wall dividing husbands and wives, driving home the separation between sexes that, just a few moments later, is shattered as Sam bullies Molly to tears. There’s a merciful unity in the aftermath as their friends, Sam’s especially, pick away at his boorishness for the rest of the movie.
Sam and Molly aren’t the only married couple under stress. Their conflict bleeds into the life of their son, Joel (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife, Sharon (Missy Yager), who play hoteliers to Molly when she moves in with them and starts dating. Sharon tries to keep her patience while Molly rearranges her kitchen and passive aggressively offers to stay elsewhere. Real estate agent Joel, meanwhile, tries to keep his cool with a flirty client, Tracy (Pamela Gray). It’s the punctuation mark wrapping up the movie’s driving question: Guys, why the hell can’t you just let yourselves be happily married?
The massive carp wading around Sam’s tub doesn’t have any answers, but when the film ends and Sam finally reconciles with Molly, we get one. It’s packaged in the love Stiller and Meara have for one another, delivered through a heartfelt final exchange that reads less as dialogue and more as conversation between spouses. It’s possible that no one in the history of big screen couples loved each other more than they did. In A Fish in the Bathtub, the audience is the beneficiary of that love, excavated through their performances and Silver’s immense gift for parsing her characters’ interior lives.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.