Early one morning at Venice Beach, poet Ted Whitley (Bud Cort) is on the pier when he catches sight of a beautiful woman rising from the waves and wading back to shore. He is entranced with this image, but although he jumps into the sea to follow her he does not manage to reach her and the woman goes on her way. Later, Ted joins his best friend Max Waters (James Brolin) at a poetry gathering where he wins first prize, the money from which should help him as the mentally troubled man exists on disability benefits. However, his recital of his winning poem hints that he may still be a danger to himself - or others...
Touchingly, Bud Cort, whose directorial debut this was, dedicated it to three of the main creative forces who accompanied him in his Harold and Maude breakthrough role, and in some ways Ted and Venus could be seen as the flipside to that film, with its ageing anti-hero besotted with a younger woman who in this case does not share his enthusiasm. Cort also co-scripted with Paul Ciotti, and this low budget effort strikes a strange chord, unsure of whether it is a period drama (it's set in 1974), a lovelorn comedy or an all out stalker thriller.
It could be that it's all three, but at its heart is a committed performance by its director who makes us understand Ted's dilemma without condoning his obsession. When he goes to the local housing charity to see about getting a better apartment, he is delighted to see that one of the staff is his Venus (Kim Adams as Linda), the woman he saw at the beach and so impressed him, and so he makes eager attempts at conversation (Cort also mimes doing the doggy paddle when as he talks, just to underline the plot developments). And when she accepts an invitation to go to his poetry reading, he thinks he is as good as hitched to her.
Linda doesn't cotton on to what Ted has in mind until he has planned out his future with her in his thoughts, and the tone of the film grows uncomfortable. Mainly this is because of those curious lapses into humour, which can throw you off guard; not that this is not funny in places, at times it can be very amusing, but these instances seem out of place. Nevertheless, it's quirks like that which offer the film its unusual timbre, even though after a while you become irritated with Ted's inability to see that no matter how focused on her he is, she is simply nowhere near as interested in him.
So the story is on Linda's side as this turns into an ordeal, but we take no pleasure in the downward spiral that Ted takes. There's no excusing the harrassment he inflicts on the object of his preoccupation, but when he ends up in court, then in a mental hospital, then finally in prison it's an unhappy series of developments. Somehow Cort tries to tie Ted's downfall into the fall from grace of President Richard Nixon which the characters all watch on television, but this is a stretch too far, and he's on firmer ground with the relationships which range from Ted and Max's steady friendship that he sadly rejects, to Linda and her boyfriend's falling out. In truth, Ted and Venus is all over the place as far as its story goes, and its ending is too over the top, but it's curious enough to keep you watching. Music by David Robbins.