Table for Five

July 19, 2012

It’s a well-known fact: everybody likes a good cry. But I think we can assume, based on the evidence of Table for Five, that Jon Voight likes a good cry more than the rest of us. In fact, this man loves a good cry, and he’ll open his ducts at the drop of a plot development. Voight gets through half of Table for Five in pretty good shape, but when the major plot bombshell falls—I’m not telling, but it’s a doozy—he starts doing some serious bawling in every other scene or so.

It gets to be too much, even if Voight is one of the best criers around. He’s playing a golf pro/divorced father who hopes to come back into the lives of his three children by taking them on a cruise to Egypt. Mom (Millie Perkins) gives her okay; her new man (Richard Crenna, in another slice-of-ham performance) is somewhat more skeptical. Voight’s character has a reputation as a loser, and the trip represents a last chance for his family and his self-respect. He quickly screws up, and is preparing to throw in the towel on the whole deal when circumstances force him to try again.

And that’s when Voight starts to get all trembly and quivery—he has to talk to his kids, but every time he tries to squeeze the words out, his face goes into contortions from the strain of holding back the tears, and he holds the words in after all. This goes on through the second half of the film, since the filmmakers—screenwriter David (Six Weeks) Seltzer and director Robert Lieberman—have decided it would be keen to put the audience through the emotional wringer every ten minutes; allowing Voight to be the weepy hesitator just increases the mileage they can get out of the eventual (and, in real-life terms, quite devastating) confrontation Voight must have with the children, and turns the movie into a tearjerking striptease.

The great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures some lovely light in the outdoor ocean liner scenes, and the scenery elsewhere is pretty, but…let’s hope he was paid well, enjoyed the traveling, and now wants to get back to work for Altman or Spielberg.

The title Table for Five, incidentally, refers to the dining arrangements that Voight reserves on the ocean liner for himself, his kids (played by three fairly excruciating child actors), and—someone else. The cute Frenchwoman that Voight hopes to get clubby with en voyage? The old widower who is conspicuously lonely? Or the audience itself—might the open chair be an invitation to cozy up to the principals? I doubt it. That would be assuming a level of complexity that the filmmakers don’t otherwise suggest. Either way, it’s an invitation that is awfully easy to resist.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

The “It’s a well-known fact” is, of course, from Gregory’s Girl. Other than that, not too many good memories of this wet movie, and I can’t remember whether Voight’s water works here pre-dates his reaction to the Laurence Olivier Oscar speech or merely repeats a tendency that proves all too facile for the actor’s toolkit.

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Lucas

March 10, 2011

Lucas is a precocious 14-year-old who has a few peculiar habits. He collects locusts. He carries a tape recorder that plays a sort of soundtrack to his life at key moments. And he goes to high school—because, “I’m accelerated,” as he says—with a bunch of older kids.

Which means that Lucas is lonely, if bright. And Lucas is the story of a crucial turning point in the boy’s growth, when he finds out the meaning of life and love.

That already sounds pretty wet, and Lucas steps into most of the gooey traps of such a story. Lucas (Corey Haim) meets a new girl (Kerri Green) in school; but she’s 18, and although she befriends the shrimp, she falls more seriously for the school football star (Charlie Sheen, Martin’s son).

This is Lucas’s first heartbreak, and drives him back to his locusts (Lucas—locust—get it?). But Lucas contrives a way to prove his manhood on the football field, and conveniently finds another girl to replace his true love.

This leads to a distastefully manipulative ending. In fact, the ending is so bogus, it makes you forget the fact that writer-director David Seltzer has pulled off a few sensitive scenes along the way.

Seltzer gets a nice offbeat tone to a variety of encounters. When Sheen first notices Green, for instance, it’s at a school laundry, where they duet in an unusually long scene, both of them nervous, testing each other. And there’s a fresh angle to the scene in which Lucas brings his heart’s desire to an outdoor symphony concert—via the sewer. They travel underground until they’re near the performing shell, then they simply crack open a manhole cover not far from the music and enjoy the sounds wafting across the night.

These little touches suggest that Seltzer has some desire to avoid the usual formula for these stories, and he’s got gobs of sincerity.

That makes it all the more irritating when Seltzer slips into the nonsense of the final sequences, as Lucas insists he wants to play on the football team, in some desperate attempt to recapture the attention of his red-headed heartthrob. This, although he’d earlier announced that football players and cheerleaders were hopelessly superficial. He wasn’t quite right; it’s the film that gets increasingly superficial.

Seltzer’s cast is agreeable enough; Haim is an engaging Lucas, Green is underwhelming but steady as the focus of Lucas’s attention, and Sheen, who looks more like his father than his brother, Emilio Estevez, has an interesting quality. Although he’s good, he never seems quite at ease; it’s as though something is eating at him. Rather than detract from his performance, this actually makes it more intriguing.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

I was going to drop the Charlie Sheen Week business but then coming across this review (entirely at random, I swear), I was struck by the final sentences. Because things still are very much eating at Charlie Sheen. This movie brought on a memorable bout of high-rhapsody writing from Roger Ebert at the time, who compared it to The 400 Blows; but hey, the movie’s about a smart, bespectacled Chicago kid wrestling with first love, so let’s give the guy a pass. My review failed to mention another fresh young face in the cast, which belonged to Winona Ryder (let the whispers of the “curse of Lucas” proceed apace). Seltzer went on to make Punchline a couple of years later—and perhaps a man named Seltzer had to make a film about comedians—which wasn’t bad, but his follow-up was Shining Through, a train wreck. He created the Omen series, so he’s probably fine.