Paul (Will Smith), a charming black man, barges into the luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment of Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland), an art dealer. Flan and his wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing) are entertaining a South African tycoon (Ian McKellen). Paul, his side bleeding, claims to have been mugged. The Kittredges decide to help him after he tells them that he knows their Ivy League children and is the son of actor Sidney Poitier.
In order to repay them for their kindness, Paul cooks up a splendid dinner, regales them with the meaning of his term paper on the death of imagination, and then, in a final surprise, offers them all parts in the screen version of Cats, which his father will be directing. Enchanted by the evening, the Kittredges invite him to stay overnight with them before he meets his father the next day. But early in the morning, they find Paul with a male hustler in the guest room. He is asked to leave.
Later, the Kittredges are stunned to learn that two of their friends and a divorced doctor were also taken in by this clever young man. As they try to discover Paul's real identity and how he knew so much about their lives, these smart and sophisticated New Yorkers come face-to-face with the many degrees of separation in the city between the rich and the poor, whites and blacks, heterosexuals and homosexuals, parents and their children. This thematically rich screen version of John Guare's 1990 play also touches upon the artifice of life among the rich, the worship of celebrity, the denigration of art into commerce, and the many sides to every story.
Six Degrees of Separation is a multidimensional drama fueled by a thought-provoking screenplay, tart comic energy, firecracker surprises, and a spiritually vibrant finale. Australian film director Fred Schepisi is right at home with this material; he was also at the helm of the excellent screen version of another provocative serious play, David Hare's Plenty.
Although the other actors are excellent, Stockard Channing as Ouisa is the heart and soul of this film. She starts out as a pampered socialite with nothing on her mind except living comfortably and having interesting stories to tell at social gatherings. After her encounter with Paul, she realizes the emptiness of her inner life and the starvation of her soul. Paul, the mysterious dissembler, helps Ouisa to see that imagination is "God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable."