THE WRATH OF GRAPES  

William Kennedy, who wrote the screenplay of his revered Pulitzer Prize winning Ironweed, is quick to note that since 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 that the movie has “classic” oozing all over it: “classic” acting, “classic” design, “classic” scenes, “classic” this and “classic” that. We could call it a “classic.” Nicholson and Streep try to bring to life the Depression era’s despair with a reality that—I can’t explain why—evokes memories of The Grapes of Wrath. Considering how 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. It’s possible his eyes and brows do more acting than he’s consciously delivering, which is what sometimes marred his comic work in Prizzi's Honor—his physical features usurped his mental processes, and this happened 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, which reminds us of Sophies Choice, he’s playing his heaviest character to date—his sins are the crosses to carry in much the same way Sophie’s were—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—but something’s missing, 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 that we 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 flaw is that Streep hasn’t 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 that has been 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 Hector Babenco wanted to make this thoroughly American tale of depression. It doesn’t take long to get the answer: the movie has sequences of delusion that sort of resemble the fantasy scenes he created for Kiss of the Spider Woman. (And there are scenes in his stunning, exhilarating Pixote that, 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 in Ironweed he’s a cold Depression muralist. Ironweed is like a month of Saturday nights with candidates for AA.

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