Advertising executive Eddie Anderson wakes at his luxurious mansion and goes about his morning routine preparing for work. The radio plays in the background and Eddie flicks between the stations, catching the adverts for Zephyr cigarettes. He is the personification of the American dream: handsome, brash, cool, pampered by domestic servants, surrounded by enviable luxury. Moments later, while driving to the office, he attempts to commit suicide by steering his sleek Alfa Romeo beneath a truck.
Released from hospital to convalesce at his idyllic home, Eddie shocks those around him by shunning work colleagues and refusing to slip back into his old lifestyle. The rest of the film sees Eddie reconcile himself with: his lifelong unhappiness, his troubled relationship with his father, his loveless marriage, his loathing for the lies he perpetuates at work, his all-consuming and destructive desire for his mistress, and his true roots as an ethnic Greek (Eddie Anderson is a made-up name). The unhappiness that instigated his botched suicide appears to be a sudden act of madness, but we learn exposes a life-long pattern, punctuated by erratic behaviour: such as, dangerously buzzing his office in a plane and terrifying his colleagues inside the building. The cause of his discontent, he believes, is his loss of self-identity: allowing himself to become a prisoner of those around him; his materialistic wife, his psychologist and lawyer who are conspiring to have him certified as mentally unstable so they can control his money.
The Arrangement is rich in meaning and clearly has autobiographical significance for the writer. While it is a product of its times — the counterculture of the late 1960s — it manages a certain restraint, boasts exceptional production values and impressive cinematography. The playful and experimental touches feel in keeping with the characters and the general tone, fitting in with the gist of the story rather than becoming overbearing or whacky.
Eddie’s world, like the advertising he excels at, is all a deception. He creates advertising campaigns for Zephyr cigarettes touting them as ‘clean tasting’: a word he knows consumers will subliminally interpret as meaning cancer-free. The Swimmer features another advertising executive in denial about his life, but in this film the whole story builds up to the moment of self-revelation: in The Arrangement the story is about the aftermath. The Arrangement’s counterculture tone has similarities to The Graduate with both central characters striving for self-reinvention and rejecting the role society has foisted on them. They both have a desire to be true to who they are — as soon as they are able to work out what that is.
The message of The Arrangement is: look beyond the glossy surface of the American dream — there is another way. And before the end of the film Eddie Anderson will discover what that is but he will go through painful soul-searching to get there. The reliance on flashbacks to tell the story and the didactic ‘masterwork’ feel has echoes of Citizen Kane. In both stories a supremely successful American icon ruminates on the meaning of his life. The Arrangement is a celebration of life’s possibilities and genuine love, and a warning about social conformity, stale relationships, materialism, and living without feeling alive.