|Index||9 reviews in total|
You see, it can be done. It is possible, even in the last decades of
the 20th century, to make a good feature film that concentrates on character
and eschews action. We don't need car chases to help us through the story,
because we care about Harry and Howie and want to see what befalls them.
Paul Newman co-wrote, directed and produced this absorbing tale of father
and son, continuing his long tradition of intelligent movie-making.
Harry works the wrecking ball on a demolition site. He is a gruff, inarticulate fifty-something who likes his job. Howie is maybe 20, a dreamy young man who wants to be a writer. He has no real work, dividing his time between the car wash where he has a part-time job, his surf board and the family's hot tub, in which he does most of his writing.
And therein lies the conflict which drives this story. Harry was brought up not to question the importance of working for a living. His inflexible blue-collar morality is offended by Howie's lazy, self-indulgent lifestyle. Howie, on the other hand, grew up in a climate where self-expression and leisure activities count for more than the humdrum business of earning a living.
A medical condition forces Harry out of his job. Newman is impressive as the ageing, weakening man's man who is gutted by the loss of his livelihood, because to him it means the loss of his validity as a man. He sees Howie's vitality and intelligence and cannot come to terms with his son's lack of ambition. In one of their regular fights, Harry encapsulates the situation neatly. "I want a job and can't get one," he tells Howie. "You can, and don't."
Bright and personable, if a little too pretty in the John Travolta way, Bobby Benson plays Howie with enthusiasm. The contrast between the dour widower and his cheerful, energetic son is nicely conveyed. Supporting the two central performances are Joanne Woodward as Lillie and Ellen Barkin (Katie). Lillie is a friend of the family who develops a 'thing' about Harry. Her daughter Katie is a girl of easy morals whose relationship with Howie rekindles after a break-up.
Nice touches include the black screen at the very start which is shattered by Harry's wrecking ball, and the backlighting which gives Katie a 'halo' as she sets out her ethical position. I didn't like the too-convenient cheque which arrives from John Davidson or the ease with which secretary Sally can be suborned for sex. For me, Benson overacts horribly in the 'discovery' scene. Indeed, what happens to Harry is an unnecessarily dramatic event in this gentle, understated film.
The reason I have such fond memories of this movie is because I
remember how I felt (and still do - but it's not the same as the first
time) the first time I saw it on video, in maybe 1993, and the feelings
it provoked in me.
I graduated from high school in 1984, the year the film was made, and my mother had passed away earlier in 1979, leaving me to grow up after 13 years of age with my father and younger sister. My older brother was soon to go into the Air Force, and my older sister was already away to college. While there were many differences between Paul Newman's character and my own father, the fundamental relationship he had with Robby Benson was right on the mark with me and my father. My father died when I was 26, in 1993. I think that Robby Benson's character was a few years younger when his dad in the movie died, but it was close enough to hit home with me. I, like the Benson character, was a little aimless after high school, and my father did seem to have more patience with me at times, he could give me some harsh input at other times. And my father went for 10 years without dating anyone after my mother passed away, but towards the end of his life he did find a woman that he had a lot of fun with, and we all did things together at times as well. My father was also about the same age as Newman's character when he died, and I was present right after he had his final heart attack and died at home.
Now that I have explained some similarities with my life and the movie, I'll get back to why I liked the movie so much. It wasn't because of the coincidental similarities between my life and the movie, but because my life is real, and many people have many of these same basic father-son dynamics, and the writers(half Newman), actors (big part Newman), and director (Newman again)somehow pulled off an amazing dose of reality with this film that is common to all of us. Newman just commits himself so honestly. He has that seriousness in his character that at times is how many capable, grounded, but real fathers are; sometimes mixes it up with a humor that is just as honest and bold, maybe even irreverent, and then other times when they're with their sons and they have a 'comradery'. And then other times when fathers are just plain irritated, and the son knows he's on his father's bad side at the moment, and he should be worried, but he also knows that his father is a softy down deep. However a son would never challenge him and expect that soft side, and the son also instinctively knows that his father isn't perfect but he is much wiser than the him, and he certainly knows the father really does love him and has the son's best interests at heart.
To summarize, first of all the performances in this movie are of a Team who were in touch with the bareness and essence of our life, of our American society and family reality. And then secondly, they somehow manage to give it back to us for us all to see on the screen, and allow us to see ourselves in a new and deeper way. I understand myself and my relationship with my father, and his relationship with me, a little better because of this movie. And that is the goal of any art, and should be the goal of people intending to make good movies. Because this movie taught me so much, I have to say that it I value it is a great movie, it (the whole Team) delivered what might be expected from the title and beyond; it was heart breaking and heart warming, it was meaningful, and I had fun watching it!. Thanks to the whole Team, but a very special thanks to Paul Newman!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While I thought the movie was good, I had a very hard time with the
scene in which Harry's daughter visits. Harry was so unbelievably cruel
to his daughter in this scene, that I really wish I hadn't seen it. It
actually depressed me for days.
Harry's daughter visits Harry and his son with her husband and newborn daughter. Her husband, a life insurance salesman, shockingly tries to sell Harry life insurance, which Harry takes great offense at. The daughter then very nicely asks if she could possibly take her dead mother's china if Harry and his son aren't using it.
Okay, so maybe this was a bit insensitive, but it struck me that the daughter seemed like a very hard worker with a full time job and a new baby and, maybe, just maybe it was really tough for her without her mother and that's why she wanted the china.
Harry says that she can have the china, but then he maliciously wets the bottom of the box he gives her to carry it in. The china then falls out and breaks in a million pieces. The daughter then sees that the bottom of the box is wet, and she becomes very hurt and angry. She then exits with husband and screaming newborn.
Harry finds this funny. I did not.
My mother died when I was four, and I must confess that I have always wanted her china as well. It has sat in the china cabinet since her death, one of the few relatively unchanged items since. There are many times when I have missed having a mother and perhaps illogically have associated the china too strongly with her presence.
Perhaps wanting the china is materialistic, but it seems inhuman on a Father's part to not understand why his daughter might want something from her mother.
I really had a hard time caring about Harry after that scene.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Fans of Newman and/or Benson or of undemanding, character-driven films may enjoy this examination of a father-son relationship. Newman plays a wrecking ball operator who is experiencing jarring pain and vision issues, which cost him his job. His pride won't allow him to accept just anything else. Benson is his son, an aspiring writer, who is content to detail cars and go surfing, not worrying about what the future holds for him. Despite an underlying affection between the two, tension arises because Newman wants to work, but can't, while Benson is able-bodied, but doesn't seem to want to hold on to any sort of job. Newman, a widower of about two years, considers the affection of a quirky pet shop owner (Woodward) and conflicts with his married daughter (Borowitz) over her drippy husband and her own selfishness. Meanwhile, Benson is being seduced by a horny secretary (Ivey) when he's not pining over his lost girlfriend (Barkin) who is pregnant with some other man's child. Newman is genial and engrossing, even though his character is rather curmudgeonly and sometimes cantankerous. He plays a workaday everyman and plays it well (although very few everymen look like Paul Newman!) He has a very different sense of humor and those who enjoy it should enjoy him. Benson, who almost wears clothes in the film, is more of an acquired taste with his whispery voice and overstated expressions. He is amiable and shares a palpable chemistry with Newman despite the fact that they don't exactly look as if they could be related. (To be truthful, their relationship, on more than one occasion, reads as a bit homosexual!) In any case, the actors work hard to put across the father-son dynamic and it manages to emerge. Barkin, in one of her earliest roles, does a nice job. Woodward seems to be enjoying the wackier aspects of her character. She shares a few telling moments with her real-life husband Newman. In another spot of bizarre casting, Brimley turns up as Newman's brother (!), who offers him a spot in his surplus business. Ivey is interesting to watch, but not particularly believable. Several of the actors, such as Borowitz, reveal their stage background through their over-emoting before the camera. Some compelling supporting roles are filled by Davis, as the target of a car repossession, Freeman, as one of Benson's bosses, and Chaykin as the head of a repo gang. The film opens vividly with footage of a building demolition and the episodic nature of the piece keeps things moving for the most part, but there is also a disjointed feel. The script seems almost like brief sketches instead of progressive scenes. There are odd continuity instances, punctuated by some of the more distinctive costumes. It looks like the storyline was played with a little in the editing room. (There is also a very obviously tacked-on or re-shot ending, in which Barkin has freshly trimmed hair and the terrain is Californian instead of Floridian.) It's surprising that Newman would direct a film with so many divergent story threads, lack of attention to the details and pat situations. Still, there are enough charming or touching or amusing vignettes to satisfy most viewers who merely want to enjoy a movie.
The narrative line of the script is scattered and seems to pick up ideas and problems and then drop them without resolution to tackle some other tangential issue. The issues all pertain to the relationship between the father and son but it would have been better to focus more on their interaction and less on exterior forces. Benson tries in the lead but just is not that strong of a screen presence especially when competing with Newman's star power. The rest of the cast is certainly talented even if what they are handed character wise is diffuse. It is interesting to see some like Freeman and Barkin who went on to long careers just starting out. Not a bad film but very average.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spoilers Harry and his son Howie live together two years after Harry's wife died. There is a daughter who got married and apparently doesn't get along with her father. Harry operates a wrecking ball but has to give up his job due to vision problems (he almost kills a co-worker; the vision problems are just a symptom of something much worse). He wants to continue working but can't find anything appropriate (He won't be a security guard and he won't work in his brother's store). Howie was a valedictorian but works in a car wash while attempting to be a writer, surfing when he is not doing one or the other. When Howie must get a real job, he doesn't have a lot of trouble because of an offer by a good-looking woman who seems to want just one thing. The job itself is not at all what Howie wants, and after he gets fired his father accuses him of being lazy and a quitter. Both father and son have potential love interests: The best friend of Harry's wife has trouble communicating her feelings for Harry, who can't see the obvious. Howie's former girlfriend is pregnant, and apparently the baby isn't his, so we are led to believe that's why they broke up, though we are never definitely told. In one funny scene (at least it was to me) Harry goes back to work in the middle of the night, on the same building he was tearing down when the movie began, waking up the neighbors. Of course he had to lie to the security guard to get to the site, and the cops bring him home. Paul Newman is very good as Harry, and in fact this is an enjoyable movie with lots of good performances. I wish I had seen more of Wilford Brimley (Harry's brother) and Morgan Freeman (Howie's boss). Father and son get along pretty well, considering everything. I suppose all families have their fights. I could have done without the profanity, which was pretty potent even after being cleaned up for TV. The opening scenes of the demolition of the building were wonderfully done; I hope at least some of the cameras were unmanned. Howie's job was also exciting to watch, with good action shots of the normal operations of the machinery and then of the chaos that follows when Howie gets involved in the process. A good time overall.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This little film from director Newman could have benefited from another director's helmsman-ship. When the story focuses on Howie it really takes off and is beautiful (although Benson reverts to some 'Ode to Billy Joe' facial expressions that limit his range), but when Harry becomes the main centerpiece ... it drags. I found the lusting for Harry by the waitress character, the Sally character, and the Woodward character awfully dumb and pretentious. I did enjoy the Fort Lauderdale setting (I grew up there) and some of the scenes between the father and son are 'real', but could have benefited from more conflict like 'Hud' offered. This film does a good job of recalling the early '80s era, and Barkin (whom I've met and talked about her films with) really is genuine as the young, expectant mother. Woodward is somewhat wasted, as is Brimley until his last scene in which his character comes clean to Howie and is honest about 'janitorial supplies.' One last thing, am I the only one who notices that the last scene WAS NOT FILMED IN Florida? That's a rocky California coastline filling in for a flat Florida coastline! Duh?!
Harry & Son (1984)
** (out of 4)
Family drama centering on father Harry (Paul Newman), a blue collar construction worker who loses his job due to an unknown illness he's suffering from. Harry has trouble trying to connect to his growing son Howard (Robby Benson) who wants to make it as a writer. The son can't keep a "real" job, which rubs his father the wrong way since he actually wants to work but is unable to. You can tell this was a labor of love for Newman who not only plays the lead but he also directed, produced and co-wrote the screenplay. If you've seen some of Newman's earlier directorial films you'll know that he can create some very touching pictures and there are glimpses of that here but sadly the end result is that HARRY & SON is a complete misfire and without question the low point in Newman's directing career. The biggest problem is without question the screenplay, which is a real mess. I think this movie is supposed to be about a father and son relationship but you'd never know that because not for a second does Harry and Howard come off as some sort of connection. The relationship between the two never really comes off as a father-son thing and another major problem is that neither character really gets a chance to grow. I'd also say that the screenplay really doesn't give us much to go on because we never fully understand their motivations. We never really know why the father is so against his son. There's a subplot with an issue between Harry and his daughter that we never fully understand. There are a wide range of characters who pop up only to either disappear or you never fully get to know who they are. Another major problem with the film is that even though it runs 117-minutes, in the current form, that's way too long as scenes just seem to drag on or the obvious just happens. I'm not sure if this was originally much longer and perhaps some of the character development had to be cut out to get it down to its current length. The one saving grace here and what keeps the film from being a major dud are the performances, which for the most part are very strong. Newman has no trouble playing the troubled blue collar worker but one wishes the screenplay would have given him a stronger character to stick his teeth in. Joanne Woodward is very good in her small supporting role as a love interest. We get other good performances from a likable cast that includes Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Ossie Davis and Morgan Freeman. The one exception to the good performances is Robby Benson who is pretty bad here. Rumor has it that he actually got this part over Tom Cruise, which is a real shame because I think that actor could have done much more. Benson is really lackluster and his rather bizarre performance makes his character more creepy than anything else. Even worse are his incredibly horrid facial gestures, which quite often make the viewer break out in laughter, which certainly wasn't the intent. HARRY & SON was overlooked when it was released and today it's only of interest to Newman fans who want to see the lower side of his career.
"Harry and Son" must have meant a lot to Paul Newman because he not
only played Harry, but co-wrote the story and screenplay, as well as
co-produced and directed the film. His wife, Joanne Woodward, also got
dragged into this mess in a small supporting role.
Before Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Newman's buddy Robert Redford stepped behind the camera and won Oscars for directing, Newman won a lot of praise and some awards for his 1968 directorial debut, "Rachel, Rachel," for which Woodward received an Oscar nomination. The film was also nominated for best picture, but Newman was passed over by the director's branch who nominated Stanley Kubrick for "2001: A Space Odyssey" instead (although it might be more accurate to say the Academy gave the best picture nomination that "2001" deserved to the Newman-Woodward film). Whatever promise Newman showed behind the camera wasn't fulfilled, however, and Newman directed only a handful of other films, the best of which, in my opinion, was 1971's "Sometimes a Great Notion" from Ken Kesey's novel about a logging family in Oregon that featured a remarkable scene involving a drowning.
"Harry and Son" suggests that, as a director, Newman was spent. His first mistake was in casting himself as a construction worker, an ornery guy who would have been more suitable for George C. Scott, but made his biggest misstep by casting Robby Benson as his son. Robby Benson!? There was a time in the '70s before the Brat Pack era of the next decade when the soft-voiced, overly pretty, and annoyingly coy Benson seemed to get all the major male roles between the ages of 16 and 25. Fortunately, until the Brat Pack era of which he was not a part, there weren't too many major roles in movies for males aged 16 to 25. Movie audiences, even the 18-25 year olds said to represent the demographic Hollywood covets most, preferred stories with adult characters played by middle-aged actors, whether it was Sean Connery (or Roger Moore) as James Bond, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, or any of the roles played by Newman, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Burt Reynolds, and the other box-office draws of that era.
Benson was awful in just about everything he did, and always too goody-goody and sensitive to be believed. He's not convincing as Newman's son, nor does he believably portray a writer which the construction worker's son aspires to be. He sits grimacing at his typewriter, aggressively pounding the keys, and when his father asks why the stories he writes are always being rejected, he calmly says, "It's part of the ritual." That sounds like a remark that a neophyte writer would write for a character who is a writer. It's not what a writer would likely utter while watching the rejection slips piling up, suffering a crisis of confidence on one hand, and feeling defensively superior on the other.
Newman isn't much better. I guess he couldn't help it if he looks too handsome and physically fit for a 58-year-old laborer, but that's because he wasn't a laborer. He was a 58-year-old movie star who kept himself in tip-top shape and resembles a male model more than a construction worker even in his snug jeans and flannel shirt. Newman would convincingly play a blue collar guy a decade later in the excellent "Nobody's Fool," but he didn't write the script for that and left the directing to Robert Benton. As for Benson, he went on to voice the beast in Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast," and has mercifully remained behind-the-camera ever since. Sorry, Robby, but as an actor, you stank.
Brian W. Fairbanks
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