William Kennedy, who wrote the screenplay of his revered Pulitzer Prize winning Ironweed, is quick to note, in acknowledging he’s a “neophyte, a marginal character” in the movie making business, he made changes to accommodate Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep and the audience: Ironweed the movie isn’t Ironweed the classic novel. What hasn’t changed is the movie has “classic” oozing all over it: “classic” acting, “classic” design, “classic” scenes, “classic” this and “classic” that. Nicholson and Streep work to bring to life the Depression era’s despair with a reality evoking memories of The Grapes of Wrath. Considering the characters are haunted by past events they try to drown with wine, Ironweed might be called The Wrath of Grapes. Nicholson’s never really been an actor who can truly play tough and display depth at the same time. Possible his eyes and brows do more acting than he’s consciously delivering, which sometimes mars his comic work in Prizzi's Honor—his physical features usurp his mental processes—and this happens again in Hoffa. He’s still a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar—he gets away with things you smile at but know shouldn’t have been done or could be done much better. In Ironweed, reminding us of Sophies Choice, he’s playing his heaviest character to date—his sins are the crosses to carry in a similar way Sophie’s are—and he’s more controlled than he’s ever been. He has a moving scene early on—at the cemetery, talking to his dead child—yet he’s not coming through to touch us completely. I hesitate to say it: he hasn’t matured enough to invoke real tragedy. As for Meryl Streep, this is her first “classic” American and she’s got the exterior down so well we can virtually smell the boozed breath. She’s also back to accents—this one wino-New York. Though the movie’s basically the story of Francis’s alcoholic decline and his hallucinations, Streep as Helen manages to rise above what otherwise is a supporting character by the sheer force of acting and presence. The movie’s major disappointment is Streep not having a last reunion with Nicholson before her death. Kennedy believes audiences know Helen’s dying, but to have allowed her death to occur off camera cheats the audience of the climax of the bond established between Francis and Helen. Just before her demise, we watch Nicholson help another drunk who’s about to die of cancer, but his kiss off seems inappropriate—he’s robbing Streep of hers. At first I wondered why Brazilian director Héctor Babenco wanted to make this thoroughly American tale of depression. Doesn’t take long to get the answer: the movie has sequences of illusion sort of resembling the fantasies he created for Kiss of the Spider Woman. (And there are scenes in his Pixote which, not fantasy, have the appearance of fantasy.) Babenco is prodigious at squalor, the decrepit, but he’s more persuasive and gut-wrenching when at a near-documentary level, when the material is closer to his own experiences—as he showed in Pixote. With fiction, he retreats into calibration: Kiss of the Spider Woman is a liberalist’s plea for compassion and here he’s a cold Depression muralist. Ironweed is like a month of Saturday nights with candidates for AA.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.