Back when I was a young man, in the Pleistocene Epoch, people didn’t have challenges or issues—they were sick, damn it! They were neurotic, psychotic, mentally retarded, narcissistic, schizophrenic, sadistic, masochistic. They weren’t vertically challenged either; they were short. They weren’t differently abled; they were handicapped. And they sure as hell weren’t building engineers; they were janitors. Back then, it was even possible, if impolite, to call a spade a spade, if not the dreaded n word.
The two main characters in this Toni Kalem adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel are neither challenged nor do they have issues. They are infantile. They have never gotten past the narcissism of adolescence to become adults who see others as people in their own right, rather than projections of their own egos.
Take Evie. She hears a rock singer on the radio and becomes so convinced that he’s singing directly to her that she carves his name on her forehead with a piece of broken glass. Pour soul that she is, it never occurs to her that if you’re looking into a mirror, you have to write the name backwards so it reads properly. Thus, Casey becomes Yesac.
Take Casey himself. His first name is Drumstrings, and when he asks Evie why she didn’t carve that name on her forehead, she tells him, very sensibly, that it wasn’t wide enough. She’s not that challenged.
Between songs, Drumstrings kind of talk-sings (a la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady) the sort of woolly-headed romantic nonsense that turns Evie on. At one gig, the audience boos this claptrap; they just want Drumstrings to sing. When he refuses, he’s jobless as well as clueless.
This is the kind of catch-me-if-you-can movie in which one character pursues another until the second character stops and turns around, then the first character starts running away, pursued by the second character. The chase after the unattainable is everything; the attainment of the “unattainable” terrifying. You might call it “inability to commit” (although they didn’t cotton to kind of talk where I come from). It’s the only way I can explain the inexplicably shifting attitudes of the characters toward each other.
The funny thing about all this is that though the characters are beyond human comprehension, they are very sympathetic. This is particularly true of Evie, who is so sad, so hopeful, so unrealistic, so honest, so trusting, so destined for pain that you want to take her in your arms and rock her to sleep. (They did approve of such things in the Pleistocene.)
For a good part of the movie Drumstrings uses Evie when he needs her, dumps her when he doesn’t. I don’t know why he proposes marriage—and neither does he. (I don’t know why she accepts—and neither does she.) But you get the feeling that somewhere in his sterile self-contained vacuum of a soul a little spark is flickering, going out, reigniting.
To make these people come to life, you need actors who have enough soul of their own that they can override the inconsistencies and opaqueness of the characters they’re playing. Kalem, who also directed, has two of the best.
Guy Pearce, who was so convincing in L.A. Confidential and Memento, embodies Drumstrings perfectly, even if he did remind me of Lorenzo Lamas. To tell you the truth, I hate rock (they didn’t have it back in the day, you understand), but I certainly enjoyed Pearce’s rather laid-back crooning. He makes Casey believable even when you can’t believe in him.
Even better, because she has the more sympathetic and nuanced role, is Lili Taylor. If you’ve seen Household Saints or Six Feet Under, you already know she can act. When you see her here, you’ll realize that beyond acting there is being.
Irma P. Hall plays the sharp-tongued, warm-hearted black maid in the same stereotyped mode that Hattie McDaniel made standard in Gone with the Wind. It may be racist, but, heaven help me, I’m a sucker for it.
Unlike Anne Tyler’s novel, Kalem gives her adaptation a happy ending. I usually hate the kind of tacked-on feel-good conclusion that denies everything leading up to it. (Two examples that come to mind are Everybody’s All-American and Return to Paradise.) I can take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Honest, I can. They raised us tough in the Pleistocene. But this movie is so incredible anyway, so much like a Punch and Judy show, that an unearned happy ending is just par for the course.
© William Sternman, May 28, 2004.
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