Harry and Son

June 22, 2011

Here’s a movie that boasts an impressive set of credentials: It has a fine cast, with some big names taking relatively small parts; the technical credits are impeccable; and the story is the admirably uncommercial tale of a father/son estrangement.

And most of all, it’s the pet project of Paul Newman, a man of high ideals and integrity whose films as director have been marked by earnestness and right-mindedness. Harry and Son finds Newman wearing the hats of not just star and director, but also co-producer and co-writer, so his commitment to the film is clear.

It’s also clear that, unfair as it seems, commitment and good intentions do not a good movie make. Not always, anyway; and Harry and Son, while not unenjoyable, never really shakes itself out of its well-meaning dullness.

Newman plays Harry, a lonely, widowed construction worker (he knocks down buildings) who loses his job at the beginning of the film. There may be something wrong with his heart, but he’s too stubborn to have it checked out.

He lives with his son, Howie (Robby Benson), who spends his time surfing, washing cars, and wanting to be a writer. Harry wants Howie to stop this writing foolishness and get a real job, which Howie manfully—if not wholeheartedly—tries to do.

The kid is obnoxiously well-adjusted, but he can’t endure his father’s withdrawal from the human race. He also yearns for the terms of endearment that dad is holding back.

During Howie’s search for work, he runs into his old flame Katie (Ellen Barkin), whose yen for men led to their breakup. Things start to rekindle between the two of them, unencumbered by the fact that Katie is nine months pregnant with a child whose parentage is a subject of some debate.

Newman develops plot threads in a spare, laid-back style, without any frills but without much forward motion. I was disappointed that the film veered away from Harry’s character after the first 15 minutes or so; in many ways, the movie becomes Howie’s story. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about shifting emphasis like that, but Harry is a vastly more interesting character than his son.

Newman has tried to add a little tarnish to Howie’s character, but the boy is too good to be true: energetic, loyal, forgiving. If you like Robby Benson, whose wet blue eyes match Newman’s peepers, then this may work. Benson has impressive emotional range, and he throws himself into the part. But for those of us who can’t stand him, the goody-goody role is made even more oily. It’s a tall order to expect us to believe he could be a budding Great American Novelist.

At the end of the film, a character says, “Life is like that,” as a way of making clear that you can’t explain life’s happenings. I suspect Newman wanted to give Harry and Son a true-to-life flavor; he takes pains to make sure everything does not come out okay. But that in itself is a kind of contrivance. As director, Newman is like his character: he just isn’t willing to cut loose. His movie isn’t bad; it’s merely constricted.

First published in the Herald, March 1, 1984

This came just about at the end of the Robby Benson Era of American filmmaking, as the star of Ode to Billie Joetransitioned into a career as director and actor. Plus he married Karla DeVito almost thirty years ago, a touch that, if you were a consumer of Seventies culture, you could not have seen coming. The movie itself just didn’t spark, despite (or because of) being an obviously sincere project on Newman’s part. But life is like that.