6.1/10
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18 user 18 critic

The Designated Mourner (1997)

R | | Drama | 23 May 1997 (USA)
Jack and Judy are husband and wife, and Howard is Judys father. They live in some fictional undemocratic and repressive country, and tell us a story about their lives, mostly from Jack's ... See full summary »

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Judy
David de Keyser ...
Howard (as David De Keyser)
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Jack and Judy are husband and wife, and Howard is Judys father. They live in some fictional undemocratic and repressive country, and tell us a story about their lives, mostly from Jack's point of view. Written by Anonymous

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Rated R for some language
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23 May 1997 (USA)  »

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Jack: Stories are as necessary as food.
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Words are flowing out like endless rain...
29 November 2015 | by See all my reviews

I quote the Beatles lyric in my summary, and so the words are flowing in this 1997 film adaptation of Wallace Shawn's play, at the time simultaneously being performed in the David Hare staging of this play on London's West End.

When I first saw this on screen in some art house theatre, I was deeply impressed. Probably because the mood of intimacy one experiences in a stage presentation had been so successfully transplanted to the screen. Or so I thought at the time.

A 2015 re-screening of this film reveals a cripplingly top-sided series of monologues, devoid of panache or invention. A better choice for this film might have been Steven Soderbergh or Jonathan Demme who have both masterfully translated Spalding Gray monologues into unique movies. However David Hare, veteran of esteemed stage productions, brings nothing especially visual or memorable to this celluloid record of Shawn's play. It is three head-on characters in monologue, and the success of each depends on how capably the actor in question can carry the weight of Shawn's impenetrable thickets of dialogue.

Miranda Richardson, an actor of impressive pedigree, feels largely left to the wolves with Wallace Shawn's sketchily-conveyed account of a splintering family set against a country in political meltdown. Any texture in the performance of Judy is owed to Richardson herself, coloring in some of the numerous blank spaces left by Shawn's writing. David de Keyser, as occasionally irritating patriarch Howard, fares a little better...and has a couple of nice moments.

But best of all - and surprisingly - is famed stage/screen director Mike Nichols as Jack, a self-involved, unrepentant hedonist, who watches the real off-screen drama as a disaffected observer, pronouncing wryly on the fortunes of his estranged wife Judy and father-in-law, Howard. Shawn's dialogue is unwieldy, but Nichols masters it with relative ease. If "Jack" in the play seems to be the voice of Shawn himself, then it perhaps takes a personality as big as Nichols' to punch the words, to give them meaning and purpose...all with a sort of aloof superiority.

It really is splendid to see Nichols back in his milieu some thirty-five years after the end of his acclaimed partnership with Elaine May. Especially in the light of his passing, this must be seen as a wonderful personal document of the way the director moved and spoke in daily conversation. Yes, he's performing a character, but the barriers between actor and role seem less pronounced here than if, say, Alec Baldwin had performed the part. Nichols - I presume - graciously lent his mannerisms to Jack to enrich the performance. It was easy for him (maybe it was all he knew how to do), and it gives the character of Jack an added weight & dimension. This is a fellow we feel we know, or have encountered somewhere in our lives.

As written elsewhere, the film's closing moments become profound, and Nichols carries off the last intimate speeches with enormous delicacy. But it's hard to rely on the final five minutes to rescue the ninety previous ones of leaden-paced speech-making with little else to compensate the viewer. (Though at no point did I want to put a loaded gun to my head!) Wallace Shawn's play may indeed be better than I am giving it credit for being. But the flat visual concept and execution of this film unfortunately influence the viewer's reception of the source material. On that score, this is a non-recommend.

However, if you are an admirer of Mike Nichols' work, and want to perhaps steal 94 minutes with one of Broadway's & Hollywood's most celebrated and respected personalities, then this is definitely worth your curiosity. Mike Nichols is the reason for the 5 out of 10.


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