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Stanley & Iris
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by Jack Sommersby

"Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro Shine"
3 stars

Not having fared too well at U.S. theaters, it's probably one of those "small" pictures that plays better on home video.

Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro give such multi-layered, persuasive performances in the title roles in Stanley & Iris that they manage to overcome the sloppy screenplay and make the movie just worth recommending. After giving 1986’s best performance by an actress in Sidney Lumet’s underrated Los Angeles thriller The Morning After, Fonda unwisely chose to partake in the big-budget 1989 box-office bomb Old Gringo, so it’s a pleasure to see her doing some of her best work as Iris King, a recent widow eking out a living for her and her two teenage children as a laborer in a New England bakery-goods plant. Lacking a college education, Iris, who was a dedicated housewife used to financial security, is stuck at this dead-end job and barely managing to make ends meet; in addition to a mortgage, she’s saddled with her sister and brother-in-law, both unemployed, under the same roof (though why the both of them haven’t taken jobs at the bakery isn’t made clear). This is the first blue-collar role Fonda has played, and she’s completely convincing in it -- her considerable beauty doesn’t get in the way because this always-interesting thespian knows how to sublimate her movie-star glamour in fusing with the down-to-earth demands the role calls for. (It’s similar to the superb work another talented beauty, Michelle Pfeiffer, pulled off as the hash-slinging waitress in Frankie and Johnny.) On the bus-ride home after a long day at work, a young punk snatches Iris’s purse and makes a run for it; Iris chases him, and so does a man who was also on the bus -- De Niro’s Stanley Cox, who works as a cook at the plant’s cantina -- but he gets manages to escape. Iris is thankful for Stanley's bravery, and the two, who’ve never spoken to each other before, walk home and find themselves at ease and receptive to one another. From there they slowly develop a friendship while hovering the boundaries of romance. Iris is still grieving over the death of her husband; and Stanley, still living with his father, we can sense is harboring some kind of secret that Iris starts to pick up on in two separate happenstances where they’ve run into one another -- the first, at a shoe-repair shop where Stanley refuses to sign his name in a ledger; and the second, during a Chinese takeout meal he’s treated Iris to, his refusal to read the paper from his fortune cookie. Back at the cantina, when Stanley can’t tell which bottle behind the counter is the Tylenol when Iris has a headache, she finally realizes that he’s an illiterate who can neither read nor write. When Iris inadvertently gets Stanley fired for revealing his illiteracy to his boss who wrongly suspects him of embezzlement, he’s thrown into the workforce doing the most menial of jobs; he can no longer pay rent so he has to put his father into a state-run home; and even while having to live in a garage, he wants to better himself and convinces Iris to teach him to read.

According to a study, fourteen percent of Americans are illiterate, so a definitive motion picture on the subject would of course would be more than welcome. But it’s to Stanley & Iris’s misfortune that the scenes dealing with this are its weakest element -- we see the fundamentals being taught but not much more; there’s nothing indicative of an intellectual process that gets Stanley from the basics to the complexities he eventually masters. (These skimming-the-surface sections would be better suited to an adult version of an ABC Afternoon Special.) And there are oodles of logic loopholes. Stanley explains that he can’t open a bank account, but how has he been cashing his paychecks? How did he complete his job application at the plant in the first place, as well as the applications before and after that? He complains of not being able to take the bus because he can’t read where it’s going, yet we saw him on that bus at the beginning. When his father has passed away and the nursing-home director asks Stanley for the spelling of the name for the death certificate, and he’s unable to (which is the last-straw catalyst that propels him to seek Iris’s help), how is it that the name wouldn’t already be in the paperwork when the father was admitted? The writing team of Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, and the director, Martin Ritt, were responsible for the Sally Field star vehicles Norma Rae and Murphy’s Romance, two excellent tales about headstrong women that didn’t have near the inconsistencies consistently undermining Stanley & Iris. Even the basis behind Stanley’s illiteracy is unbelievable -- Stanley explains that because his father was a traveling salesman he went to a new school practically every month, and sat in the back and slept through classes; but this father, who’s portrayed as loving and caring, would never have allowed his son to have become illiterate; and if he discovered that his son was, he surely would have done something about it decades ago. Did Frank, Jr. and Ravetch think the mere introduction of illiteracy into the proceedings was enough, that it needn’t be aptly dealt with simply because it’s a “serious” subject? Yes, the dialogue is generally par for the course (“Why do they call it a ‘good cry’? All it does is make you look like hell, and what’s missing is still missing” and “A girl’s best friend is her mama. At least that’s what is says on the greeting cards”), but the movie is also episodic, with a teen-pregnancy thrown into the mix and the subplot of the squabbling sister and brother-in-law (two of our best character actors, Swoosie Kurtz and Jamey Sheridan, wasted) dropped like high-school French. And Ritt, despite having employed one of the best cinematographers in the business, Donald McAlpine, has come through with a really bland-looking production. (Once again, he’s shot it in widescreen; and proven again he’s not particularly good with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.)

And yet Stanley & Iris isn’t bad. Ritt may not be the most dynamic of storytellers, but he knows not just how to properly shape a scene but to locate the dramatic impetus within one and point it up just enough; in a more typical movie, especially those in the land of television, each and every scene would have its own artificial climax so as not to bore complacent audiences with thirty-second attention spans. Aside from one overwrought bit in a public library where a now-literate Stanley loudly reads pages from books he grabs from the shelves, the scenes are understated, never rushed, yet never overstay their welcome -- the performers aren’t left exposed with movie on their faces because the director hasn’t the slightest instinct for what will and will not play and for how long. Stanley & Iris does lack verve, adroitness; it hasn’t much in the way of consistent rhythm and not really a single image that stays with you. It’s kind of limp and undistinguished. But the studio, MGM, should be commended for financing a twenty-three-million-dollar production whose chief virtue is a growing, complex relationship between an everyman and everywoman in their forties bereft of formulaic development and cast with an A-list actor and actress who aren’t exactly box-office draws. As mentioned, Fonda does some of her best work, and so does De Niro. He was widely praised for his mid-level mobster in Goodfellas and the catatonic psychiatric patient in Awakenings the same year as Stanley & Iris, but his portrayal in Ritt’s movie is much more interesting, more varied and deeply felt. Stanley is a plain man with a plain haircut with plain clothes, and De Niro has immersed himself in the role where you occasionally have to remind yourself you’re watching a movie star; like Fonda, De Niro concentrates on the person, not the persona -- he’s confident enough in his ability to expressively convey inexpressiveness, and calibrated his alert reserve to give Stanley a cautious contemplativeness appropriate for a character who’s not used to being around people outside of work. (He tells Iris the best time he’s ever had were the six days he camped out in the Grand Canyon and never saw a soul that entire time.) And when Stanley starts progressing from an introvert to someone more trusting and adaptable, and proud of realizing his potential as an inventor of industrial contraptions (like a time-saving cake cooler), De Niro makes the change believable, as if you were witnessing a boy turning into a man right before your eyes. (De Niro manages to suggest Stanley has been a late bloomer, because his illiteracy has caused him to restructure his life to avoid things a “literate” person takes for granted.) In addition, that usually-grandiose composer John Williams contributes a lovely, low-key score, and the Waterbury, Connecticut, location shooting is chock-full of textured Americana.

While the DVD has only a theatrical trailer for a special feature, the anamorphic transfer is very fine.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=28385&reviewer=327
originally posted: 01/20/15 11:29:26
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USA
  09-Feb-1990 (PG-13)

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