Albany, New York, Halloween, 1938. Francis Phelan and Helen Archer are bums, back in their birth city. She was a singer on the radio, he a major league pitcher. Death surrounds them: she's sick, a pal has cancer, he digs graves at the cemetery and visits the grave of his infant son whom he dropped; visions of his past haunt him, including ghosts of two men he killed. That night, out drinking, Helen tries to sing at a bar. Next day, Fran visits his wife and children and meets a grandson. He could stay, but decides it's not for him. Helen gets their things out of storage and finds a hotel. Amidst their mistakes and dereliction, the film explores their code of fairness and loyalty. Written by
As a boomer myself, this movie made me recall my uncles from my mother's side of the family -- men from the wrong side of the tracks who were scarred by the Depression. I anticipate that others in my age group will share my sense of deja vu.
The story is sad, yet in these heartless modern times, when families eat their prepackaged dinners in separate rooms, watching TV or surfing the Web, the viewer feels nostalgia even for the Depression because experiences were shared deeply with others.
This film is about loss -- loss of family and of love -- and about the hard times that made these heartbreaks even more wrenching. The Depression has been portrayed more accurately here than in any movie in my memory.
The writing is exemplary, as is the set design and camera work. But it's the the performances that shine brightest. Not only those of Nicholson and Streep, from whom you expect greatness (this movie was shot before Nicholson started playing himself). Watch for stunning vignettes by Tom Waits, who can act far better than he can sing, and a show-stopper by the fine character actor Jake Dengel.
In our postliterate time, when attempts at drama come off more like caricatures, and people's ability to relate to each other is only Blackberry-deep, the experience of watching a film about the human experience as it used to be is one to be treasured.
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