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The first half of the film shows Gowan McGland (Tom Conti), a creatively blocked Scottish poet, cutting a swath through various older society women as he recites his verse to various arts groups and cultural societies. The tone is very much uneasy social comedy: McGland cadges expensive dinners from well-off patrons (usually stealing the tips afterward) while seducing their bored wives and affecting superiority over the bourgeois types he exploits. While obviously quite talented, he is also a career drunk, indifferent to the wounds he can casually inflict with his wit. (When one of his middle-aged conquests undresses for him, he mutters, "Unsupported, her breasts fell like hanged men.") But his rumpled charm, Scottish burr, and mouthful of brilliant white teeth make him irresistible to women, and he manages to eke out a day-to-day existence by leaning on the kindness of strangers.

The second half of the film becomes appreciably darker, after Gowan falls in love with a young college student, Geneva Spofford (Kelly McGillis, in her debut film role), who has everything to lose from a relationship with a drunken deadbeat poet unable to hold a job. After a couple of ugly incidents (Gowan throws a messy tantrum in a fancy restaurant, after getting into a humiliating tavern brawl from which Geneva has to rescue him), they split up. He also suffers an ironic come-uppance from a husband he has cuckolded; the man is a dentist, and he offers Gowan free dental care in order to ruin his smile and force him to wear dentures.

Gowan prepares to hang himself, but while dictating his last thoughts into a tape recorder he comes up with some good lines and regains his will to write. Unfortunately, his host's pet dog — an Old English Sheepdog named Reuben — comes bounding into the room before Gowan can undo the noose and turns the suicide into accidental asphyxiation. Only at the very end does the film's title make sense


 

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