A noted author once stated that every person in the world is connected to every other person by a trail of only six people. That is what is what is meant by the title of the film "Six Degrees of Separation", based on John Guare's play of the same name. In this movie affluent people are brought together with those less fortunate through a series of situations so unusual that they become the talk of the town.
Ouisa (Stockard Channing) and Flanders (Donald Sutherland), an uppercrust New York couple in the midst of an small, informal business meeting in their penthouse apartment, are disturbed by a knock at the door. A young man named Paul (Will Smith), who claims to attend Harvard with the couple's children, is at the door sporting a fresh stab wound to the abdomen. Paul, who claims to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier, is such a smooth- talker that he inadvertently clinches the deal that couple was trying to make with their guest (Ian McKellen) and has the trio eating out of the palm of his hand. He evens promises them extras' roles in his father's upcoming film version of "Cats". Ouisa lets Paul spend the night in their apartment and Flanders gives him $50 for pocket money.
In the morning they catch him in bed with a male prostitute and no amount of smooth-talking will prevent them from kicking him out of their home. This incident is just the first in a series which make their way into the conversation at every party the couple attends.
The next incident has them running into another couple (May Beth Hurt, Bruce Davison) who have had the same exact experience. After revealing this con-game to the police they are introduced to yet another person who has had this experience. In each case, nothing was stolen or harmed. A subsequent incident has Paul claiming to a struggling young couple that he is the illegitimate son of Flanders. This couple also takes in Paul and lets him live with him until he coaxes the man into a homosexual encounter.
All of the people who have been hoodwinked by Paul band together to investigate the connection between them. It turns out that Paul was a street kid who used sexual favors to persuade a rich young man (Anthony Michael Hall) to divulge information about his equally rich friends and their parents. Paul didn't want to take anything from these people. All he wanted was to become part of their world.
"Six Degrees of Separation" makes the transition from play to movie without ever ceasing to be a play. By this I mean that it is still staged like a play and the style of acting displayed by those in it is feels wholly artificial. Whenever someone talks it's as though they had just branched into their own little monologue. Every piece of dialogue over two minutes feels like over-rehearsed speech. Instead of performing for a film crowd, the actors are play-acting for a theatre crowd.
Fred Schepisi undertook the thankless task of directing this rigid drama. Most of the time this involved just setting the camera in one place and leaving it there, occasionally mixing things up with a slow zoom or high angle shot. Consequently the direction, the character's attitudes and the subject matter conspire to make the film seem pretentious. And nothing bores quite like pretension.