13 November 2009

ALAN J. PAKULA: ORPHANS (1987)

The blithering waste of celluloid that was Dream Lover at least had the effect of putting a little juice back into Alan Pakula's career: at the very least, he'd never make such an ossified mediocrity as Sophie's Choice ever again, though mediocrity was certainly part of his career until the end.

That said, his 1987 follow-up to Dream Lover was actually a decent, low-key character drama-comedy, the best thing he made all decade (not such a very high bar to clear, perhaps). Titled Orphans, it was adapted by playwright Lyle Kessler from his three-character play about a wealthy criminal named Harold (Albert Finney, reprising his London stage role), who is kidnapped by a pair of adult brothers who have lived alone together since they were orphaned as children: Treat (Matthew Modine), prone to violent outbursts, and Phillip (Kevin Anderson, also of the London production), who is a bit touched in the head, and hasn't been outside of their rundown house in Newark, New Jersey, in many years. Treat makes ends meet through the pettiest of petty larceny, pickpocketing watches and rings and the like. At first the two hope to ransom Harold, but he manages to escape in very short order indeed, with a business proposition: he can use someone like Treat as a bodyguard, and he's already developed a soft spot for Phillip's delicate condition. Thus it is that Harold, whose own childhood in Chicago was in an orphanage, comes to stand in as father for the two young men, teaching Treat how to control his wild emotions, and giving Phillip encouragement and respect like he's never known.

There is a distinct stagey quality to the dialogue that keeps Orphans from ever completely shedding its theatrical roots: all three characters speak in rather more formal, precise language than seems natural in a movie, lending it a certain stiffness (this is ever a problem with films adapted from stageplays, all the more so when the original writer is responsible for the adaptation). But that significant caveat aside, I'm quite impressed by how well Pakula and his director of photography, Donald McAlpine - who did not have any truly impressive bona fides at the time, but has since shot Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! - mange to keep the film from feeling stagebound, especially since most of it takes place in one of three rooms in a mostly empty house. The camera is used fairly judiciously, if without any wild flourishes of creativity, capturing the actors from perspectives that are essentially cinematic and putting the viewer in a place relative to the action that could not be achieved onstage. It's a different way of achieving the intimacy with the characters that comes from live theater.

It's still a very script-heavy piece, though, as character studies rather always tend to be. And while there's no real way to mount an auteurist reading of a film in which the playwright's voice is so prominent, it does feel a great deal like the kind of films that Pakula made earliest in his career: very little happens, and the main purpose of the action is to provide the characters with a chance for self-reflection. The difference between Orphans and the director's other films in the same mode is that Pakula, at heart, is not a sympathetic filmmaker: he may want the viewer to fully understand his characters, but he does not particularly care if we have any real affection or pity for them. They are case studies, and little more than that. It is quite evident on the other hand that Kessler is trying to tell a story that will move the audience, with deeply felt characters experiencing the sort of catharsis that we full engage with. It is, I guess, to Pakula's credit that he abandoned his ordinary style, and let the screenplay speak for itself; at the same time, there hadn't yet been a film in all his career that feels less like a Pakula picture, and maybe in 1987, this was a good thing.

It is not accurate to call it "generous", but it does have a certain warmth to it, mostly thanks to the three very satisfying performances at its core. Finney and Anderson had of course been refining their performances for some time before the film was shot, but there is a fundamental difference between acting on stage and acting on set; and anyway, Modine wasn't part of the equation prior to this. One of the chief pleasures of the film is watching these three performers playing off of each other, although it could be complained that the effect is more like watching a series of acting exercises than proper drama. Which may well be the case, but then, they are very effective acting exercises. And certainly, all three men are ultimately able to find whatever is the most human about the character they're playing. Finney has the hardest task, I think, trying to create out of nothing a motivation for why Harold would decide to be the fairy godfather that makes the two younger men's lives better, and while that question is never given a specific answer, the actor makes it absolutely clear that the character is at heart a loving, gentle man. As for Modine and Anderson, they are both perfectly believable as broken people, and as Phillip and Treat redeem themselves, so do the performances grow more and more tender and sympathetic.

The only thing that comes anywhere close to jeopardising what ought to be a fairly affecting story of loveless people experiencing love for the first time is that the director simply doesn't know what to do with this kind of material; the only other film in his career that had been at all this sincere was Starting Over, a flat-out comedy; something that Orphans absolutely could not be. So does a certain formal coldness keep bumping into the story. Not a customary Pakula formal coldness - like I said, he didn't shoot this in anything like his usual aesthetic; there is much greater emphasis on camera movement and more close-ups. But it is nonetheless a film in which we are aware of the placement of the camera a bit too often for the good of the story. As I said, it doesn't seem like a filmed play, which is fantastic, but I wonder if that's exactly what went wrong; if Pakula and McAlpine spent so much time thinking of how to make it look like a movie that they ended up emphasising the look a little too much. It's still an effective movie, adrift in a late-career rush of pointless crap, but it deserves to be much more effective still - as it stands, those great performances and characters feel a bit imprisoned by the walls of the film frame.

1 comment:

Zev Valancy said...

I read somewhere that I can't remember that this movie had at the time the smallest gross relative to production costs ever--somewhere in the thousands. Glad to know it's not the disaster that would imply.

The play seems to have faded from the repertory and Kessler doesn't seem to be working in theatre any more, so I'd be interested to check out the movie to see what everyone was so excited about at the time. (By the way, it was a Steppenwolf production directed by Gary Sinise that moved to New York, made the show famous, and spawned the London production that inspired the movie.)