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Stanley Cox is a shy, illiterate short-order cook who has never taken a chance at love. Iris King is a newly widowed factory worker who has vowed never to love again. But as their friendship slowly blossoms and Iris helps Stanley learn to read, his strong yet gentle kindness helps mend her broken heart. And where two lonely strangers stood trapped within the past, Stanley and Iris can now begin a new chapter of their lives - together. Written by
MGM/UA Home Video
An Important Subject with Two Stars Meandering Through a TV-Movie-Level Vehicle
As the last film directed by the redoubtable Martin Ritt, this 1990 drama is full of good intentions about adult illiteracy and has two proved star actors, Jane Fonda and Robert DeNiro, in the lead roles. Nonetheless, it rarely hovers above the level of a Lifetime TV-movie, as the story amounts to a series of episodes around the burgeoning relationship between Iris, a recently widowed worker in a pastry factory and Stanley, a quiet, illiterate cook who likes to invent mechanical contraptions in the privacy of his apartment. They meet when he is hired at the company cafeteria, but he loses his job when it becomes clear he cannot read or write. Realizing his illiteracy has prevented him from taking care of his ailing father, Stanley asks Iris to teach him. The rest is pretty inevitable, though there are affecting moments along the way mainly because DeNiro is able to convey the basic decency and veiled humiliation of his character.
What I do miss in DeNiro's performance is the edge of danger that makes him truly transcend his best roles like what he did right after this film as Jimmy Conway in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas". Stanley seems to be a distant cousin of DeNiro's similarly passive and inarticulate character in Ulu Grosbard's 1984 "Falling in Love". In what was to be her last film for fifteen years, Jane Fonda seems woefully miscast, looking too intellectually alert and physically aerobicized to portray Iris with conviction. Begging for a Kathy Bates-type to inhabit her, Iris should be downcast about her life and feeling a deepening loneliness about her situation, but Fonda's off-screen resourcefulness makes it difficult to believe this woman would truly feel stuck. It also feels disingenuous of the character to talk about her weight concerns and wanting a couple of eclairs when we are looking at an actress who has made millions on her workout tapes.
Regardless, Ritt is also a master when it comes to showing the trials of everyday people in working class settings, and there is genuine chemistry between the two actors, which helps considerably as the story meanders toward its conclusion. The rest of the cast is used inconsistently as plot devices, in particular, Swoosie Kurtz as Iris's battered sister, who oddly disappears midway through the story, and Martha Plimpton as Iris's sullen, impregnated daughter. I have to conclude the primary problem with the film is the episodic screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, both of whom have teamed with Ritt on a number of superior films like "Hud" and "Norma Rae". The DVD has no extras.
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