The moment when human society surpassed “mere survival” as our primary life’s activity and developed culture and civilization instead is more of a mixed blessing than you’d think. We were finally able to find pleasure in our own existence and life ceased to be a never-ending struggle to not starve, but with that time to relax and ponder our place in the universe, we were struck by the existential questions that have defined modern human life. Why are we here? What’s the point of it all if we’re just going to die someday anyways? How do I find purpose in my life?
And though such philosophical quandaries are the bread and butter of the upper crust and the intellectual who have the leisure of devoting significant parts of their lives to introspection, these are questions that every person faces. And the cultural divide between the academics and professionals from the working class and uneducated makes it too easy for the former to think that the latter doesn’t think about these same issues. The only difference is where the meaning in our lives is derived. And whether that’s God, family, love, or intellectual pursuits, before we die, every man and woman must find their answer to that question.
1999’s Spring Forward isn’t so much an attempt to answer the great questions of life (look towards The Tree of Life for that type of film) as it is an examination of men who are desperately seeking some meaning and some stability to grasp onto in their lives. And by placing the film squarely on the shoulders of two blue-collar but intelligent guys, Spring Forward avoids the potential snares of intellectual pretension by showing vividly crafted and realistic figures attempting to wrestle with ideas that have eluded the philosophers for millennia. About the only complaint one could lodge against this film is that all anyone does in it is talk, but when the conversations are this good, who cares?
After spending 18 months in prison for committing an armed robbery when his life went to complete shit, Paul (Liev Schreiber) gets a job in the Parks and Recreation department of a tiny New England town, and it’s his last chance to get the pieces of his life back together. When he was in prison, Paul was introduced to spiritual writings from the great minds of all of the major religions, and for a guy that dropped out of high school, Paul is able to find parallels in the writings of these men and the life he’s living right now. But it isn’t until he’s paired with the old Murph (Toy Story 3‘s Ned Beatty) that Paul finds the steady footing he needs.
When the film begins, Murph is one year away from retirement, and he and Paul couldn’t be more different. Murph hasn’t strayed from the path a day in his life (or so you think at first), and the foul-mouthed, explosive Paul is set up to be a thorn in his side. But Murph’s gay son is dying from AIDS (never explicitly stated as such in the film) and we soon learn that Murph is as much of an emotional mess as Paul is because of his guilt of not giving his son enough love. And over the course of one year, Murph and Paul confide their deepest secrets to one another as they become the father and son they both desperately need.
Spring Forward is structured more like a play than a traditional film and it is broken down into clearly recognizable acts. Each scene is much lengthier than your average movie (they can be nearly twenty minutes a piece) and each time (with the exception of the final scene), the scenes are centered around a conversation between Murph and Paul as the year has progressed and their friendship has gotten deeper. They open themselves up to each other, and in the process, they voice their concerns and philosophies about the nature of the world as they dance circles around one another trying to determine if the other is worth the trust and affection they both need to give.
Though I was enjoying the film, it finally cohered into a great picture halfway through when its theme and goals were made clear. It’s the beginning of fall and Paul and Murph are cleaning up leaves at a baseball field when Murph has a breakdown about his son. The pair get stoned together and all of Paul’s philosophical jabbering through out the movie finally adheres into a meaningful outlook on life and Murph tells a deeply personal story about an event at his brother’s funeral (which leads to one of my favorite lines in the film where Murph talks about how in a certain Indian tribe, the words for “breath” and “poetry” were the same).
Spring Forward is a beautifully acted and emotionally subtle film that proves to hold an emotional wallop when all is said and done. I’m hard-pressed to name a better performance in Ned Beatty’s career than as Murph, particularly as the layers of his character are slowly peeled away as the film progresses. He starts out as the sage father figure Paul needs, but Beatty makes it clear just how fueled by regret and guilt Murph really is. And though Liev Schreiber’s accent was comically unplaceable, he captured the simmering tension and desperate earnestness of Paul masterfully. And the naked emotional intimacy the two men shared was a wonderful display of masculine vulnerability.
That the plot of this film is propelled almost entirely by conversations is going to be a turn-off for some. There are exactly two scenes where a major event occurs that isn’t almost entirely an extended conversation (and even then, there’s plenty of talking). So, perhaps writer/director Tom Gilroy (Girls Town) could have done a better job of externalizing these revelations and conversations, but the point of the film was watching men from a very specific walk of life wrestle with these incredibly tough questions. And from that perspective, it is a great film and a worthy heir to the My Dinner With Andre-legacy of existentialist, conversation-fueled cinema.
Final Score: A-