Tag Archive: Paul Newman


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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. Two main points. One, I watched this film in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It is now the wee hours of Thursday morning, and I’ve only just now had the chance to write this review. I’ve had to work many more hours this week than I had originally intended, and I stupidly kept putting off writing this review. So, I apologize if it is not my most well-written piece because this excellent film deserved a proper review. Second, we’re on a bit of a hot streak here on my blog. For this particular 50 film set, of which there are only 13 or so films left to watch, I’ve only given away 5 “A”s, counting the movie I’m about to review. And four of those five have been within my last ten reviews. So, it’s been a good time for me to write about the films I’m watching because otherwise this particular set has been mostly underwhelming to mediocre.)

There are two types of “sad” films. There are films that are sad because there is virtually no other way to approach their subject matter. These films involve genocide (Schindler’s List), terminal cancer (One True Thing), or the death of children. Other films are sad because they present truths about life and the human condition that we would rather ignore or look past. Synecdoche, New York is almost overwhelmingly depression for a variety of reasons, but perhaps, the most clear reason is the way it forces viewers to face their own mortality and the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives. A Single Man‘s portrayal of loneliness, isolation, and desperation are truly haunting, and I could tick off dozens of other films that I’ve reviewed that are overwhelmingly sad without being melodramatic about it. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen that falls into this latter category.

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It’s rather shocking that I find Rachel, Rachel as moving and soul-crushing as I do because I am clearly not the film’s target audience, and Paul Newman’s (The Color of Money) directorial debut does not seem like an easy candidate for a film that would age particularly well.  A movie that is very much the product of its late 1960s heritage as well as the obvious political sympathies of Paul Newman, Rachel, Rachel should, by all counts, come off as terribly naive and dated. It doesn’t; it doesn’t in the slightest. Never has the existential dread that comes from being stuck in a small town and controlled by the not necessarily malevolent but rarely benign machinations of others been so well-displayed. If you have ever felt lonely or like your life is rushing by with you as a mere observer, the powerful portrait that Rachel, Rachel paints may be overwhelming. It was for me.

Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) is a 35 year old schoolteacher that lives under the thumb of her overbearing mother. A virgin with absolutely no excitement in life, Rachel’s quickly approaching middle age and knows she has nothing to show for it. The summer is approaching and when Rachel isn’t turning down invitations for social activity from her best friend, Calla (Estelle Parsons), or dinner invitations from her school principal, she’s dreading the end of the school year because she knows it means she will have nothing to do but pass the time at home with her widowed mother, making sandwiches and running errands and having no life of her own. It isn’t until Rachel meets a man from her childhood that she begins to make any decisions for herself, though her affair with the rakish Nick (James Olsen) proves to be anything but a fairytale romance.

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Easily, part of the reason why I thought I would find this film unappealing based on Netflix’s barely accurate plot description was that it is almost the archetype for countless, lesser films that followed. These are films that follow “wound tight woman learns to live when she meets a gregarious and young suitor with a true joie de vivre.” That’s more or less an entire subgenre of romantic dramas/comedies. What the other films fail to capture is the unerring vision of reality that Rachel, Rachel exudes in every scene (though it also indulges in the fantasies of the heroine but those are usually used for subversive reasons). Rachel, Rachel is a dark and unyielding look into the life of a woman whose path has been decided without her say from the start, and she may have reached the point where it’s too late to fix things. Any optimism in the film is tempered with healthy doses of unvarnished suffering, not just from Rachel but from nearly every person around her.

But, as insightful as the writing is, what truly makes Rachel, Rachel an under-appreciated and now obscure classic (but a classic nonetheless) is the frighteningly fierce and heartbreaking performance from Joanne Woodward. Without her, this film isn’t half as good as it is. With every line of her face and subtlety of expression or gesture, you feel the immense pain and sorrow that has totally consumed Rachel’s life. With the exception of Synecdoche‘s Caden Cotard, I’m not sure if I can think of a film character who seems so totally miserable,  but in a way that’s relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with depression. And when Rachel lets her guard down, Woodward ensures that the audience knows how difficult this is for her (and the writing makes it clear that opening herself up to Nick is a mistake). It is a truly masterful performance and it’s a shame that it hasn’t become iconic of powerful female acting.

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As I said earlier, I watched this nearly four days ago now so I’ll draw this review to a close. I feel like if I write any more, I’ll just muddle what I’ve already said. My recommendation for Rachel, Rachel is as simple as this. If, in your life, you have ever experienced the intense pangs of loneliness or isolation or existential desperation, Rachel, Rachel has the potential to become a profoundly moving experience. Though I did not cry any during the film, the sadness I felt during this film wasn’t of the crying variety. It was of a powerfully drawn picture of a spectrum of the human condition that most cinema would rather avoid. If you like your films with window dressing that obscures the sadder realities of life, Rachel, Rachel will not be your cup of tea. But, if you can brave its stormy thematic waters, you will discover a haunting and spiritually piercing film.

Final Score: A

 

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Nobody’s Fool

Over the course of writing this blog, I’ve come across plenty of films that can be conveniently defined as “almost had it.” They may have had neat ideas or interesting characters or a quirky sensibility, but something about them was so inherently flawed that it kept me from really enjoying the movie. The most common way this problem presents itself is with films that have a fantastic performance or ensemble cast (The Help or The Rose), but the writing is so dreadful and maudlin that you congratulate yourself for even being able to finish the film. Well, I’ve come across a rare version of this phenomenon where a quiet and understated dramedy about the quirky and eccentric denizens of a small town was ruined by tacking on this trite father/son/grandson tale which seemed so stale and inauthentic that it completely un-immersed me from the legitimately interesting denizens of the film’s setting. Not even the always charming and roguish Paul Newman (The Color of Money) could save 1994’s Nobody’s Fool from being an overwrought pile of kitsch sentimentality which is a shame because the film did have a number of things going for it.

In Nobody’s Fool, Paul Newman plays Sully, an old and half-crippled handyman who ran out on his wife and young child over 30 years ago (though he still lives in the same town as his ex-wife). Sully gets by on doing the random odd-job either on his own or for Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis), a local construction manager who refuses to pay Sully money that Carl may or may not really owe him. Sully also takes care of the aging Miss Beryls (Driving Miss Daisy‘s Jessica Tandy) who rents out the top floor of her house to Sully even though her banker son wants her to kick Sully out and sell the house and move into a rest home. Sully’s got a one-legged lawyer named Wirf (Gene Saks), a dim-witted but loyal best friend/coworker named Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and a whole host of other characters to populate this well-realized town, including the obnoxious cop Raymer (The Big Lebowski‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Carl’s estranged wife Toby (Melanie Griffith). One day, Sully’s son (who hasn’t seen in decades) pulls into town visiting his mother, and Sully learns that he has not one but two grandchildren. While Sully tries to make up for all of the years he lost with his son by bonding with his grandchild, Sully still has to find ways to get buy when he’s an old man with almost no prospects.

Let there be no mistake. While I did not enjoy this film (I actually had to turn it off halfway through last night and finish it today because I found all of the artificial emotions on display to be more than I could handle), Paul Newman gave one of the best performances of his career. He’s an iconic Hollywood hero and one of the greatest stars of his or any generation. Sully is a very three-dimensional role (and remarkably unsympathetic) and while Paul Newman was still drawing upon all of that old charisma and charm (because I honestly don’t think it’s possible for Paul Newman to not be charming), Sully is a pretty tough guy to root for. He forgets his grandson while he’s inspecting a house, he generally abuses his best friend, and for a good 30 years, he made absolutely no effort to have a relationship with his own kid. Yet, Paul Newman manages to make a complete person out of all of these scars and warts. Sully is a grizzled survivor and a rapscallion, and the reason that we end up caring about what happens to Sully is that Paul Newman makes him so much more than the sum of his writing. Once again, here is another stellar performance (the other being Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction) that lost out to the gimmicky and over-rated Forrest Gump.

I love character driven films. I sat through the entirety of the nearly mind-numbingly slow The Whales of August and enjoyed it because of how authentic and genuine that tale of two elderly sisters felt. I especially adore movies and TV shows full of quirky characters leading strange lives. I’m pretty sure my dad and I were the last people left watching John from Cincinnati because it was just so weird. Similarly, Northern Exposure is one of the most under-rated and quirky TV shows of all time. When Nobody’s Fool is character driven and quirky, it works fantastically. I love the characters in this movie and the actors playing them nail it. However, the heart of the film, it’s beating core is so drably sentimental and rings so completely false that it corrupts and taints everything else. It isn’t even one of those occasions where I can enjoy some parts of the film and try to ignore the part I disliked. Instead, the film seems defined by its failures even when its successes are so high.

I only recommend this to hardcore Paul Newman fans because he really knocks it out of the ballpark here. Also perhaps serious Jessica Tandy fans but I’m not really sure if that’s  a group of people that exist (this was her last role). Everyone else can avoid this movie. Well, if you’re into faux-sentimentality and utterly unrealistic drivel then you may appreciate the father/son/grandson tale at the heart of the film, but for anyone who gets a little bit nauseous someone tries to force feed you obviously manipulated emotion, then take a pass on Nobody’s Fool.

Final Score: C+