Welcome Home

March 9, 2022

Welcome Home is a film so without irony, so without hipness, that it could be mistaken for a soap opera from the 1950s. Except for its subject matter, that is, which tells of a soldier in Vietnam who was lost behind lines in 1971 and presumed dead.

The soldier (Kris Kristofferson) emerges in Thailand 17 years later. He has spent his time in prison camps and later in hiding in Cambodia, where he married and had two children. The sore point: He also has a wife back in Vermont, who thinks he has been dead all these years.

The movie’s main matter is bringing Kristofferson back to the United States and letting the dramatic chips fall where they may when he reappears. His father (Brian Keith) gets over the shock readily and happily, but the wife (JoBeth Williams) is, understandably, shakier. She’s remarried (to Sam Waterston), for one thing; then there’s a son, now 17, whom Kristofferson knows nothing about.

The revelation of the son is entirely predictable, and a lot of the hubbub surrounding the wife-with-two-husbands business seems hyped up. The film also lays on a side plot about a military coverup of Kristofferson’s re-emergence that seems to exist purely to have something else going on.

With all of that, Welcome Home should be a bad movie. It may very well be a bad movie. I must say that I found it so completely unaware of its own implausibilities, so unashamed of its melodrama, that it was effective, even moving, on its own terms. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Williams and Waterston are capable as always, Brian Keith is better than he’s been in years, and Kristofferson – well, he’s nobody’s idea of a master thespian, but if you want to communicate the immediate sense of a scorched soul, he’s the man. The script, by Maggie Kleinman, often skirts around the sizable clumsiness of some scenes with economical, stripped-down dialogue.

Welcome Home is the last film from Franklin J. Schaffner, a generally solid craftsman who enjoyed a brief time in the upper echelon of American directors (he won the Best Director Oscar for Patton). Schaffner, who died earlier this year, won’t be remembered as one of the greats, but he made some entertaining movies and he always showed a strong sympathy for the outsider. As a sendoff, Welcome Home is nothing to be ashamed of.

First published in The Herald, September 1989

For Schaffner, better to go out with this than Yes, Giorgio or Sphinx, I suppose. It was also Trey Wilson’s last film. I remember nothing about the movie, sorry. Henry Mancini did the music.


Memories of Me

March 29, 2021

If you took Nothing in Common and threw in just the merest dash of Death of a Salesman, the result might be Memories of Me. This film, written by Eric Roth and comedian Billy Crystal, wades through some thick family history that’s been surrounding a father and his far-off son.

They’ve been keeping a continent between them, but when Abbie Polin (Crystal), a New York doctor, suffers a heart attack, he figures it’s a cue to patch things up with his father, Abe (Alan King). So Abbie flies to Los Angeles to spend some time with dad, who’s made his living as a Hollywood extra (though the son prefers to think of him as “a professional embarrassment”).

They’ve never really gotten along, but – as if you couldn’t guess – they come to some sort of understanding as the days go by. To make it all neat and tidy, the script throws a terminal illness in the direction of the father. This definitely focuses things.

What makes this warmed-over material halfway watchable is the sometimes thoughtful, sometimes playful direction of Henry Winkler. This is the first feature directed by the actor best known as The Fonz, and it bodes well for the future. Winkler’s touches tend to be superior to whatever’s going on in the scene, such as the projecting of home movies on a refrigerator, or the deliberate way Crystal slices an apple when he describes his father. Winkler often shoots scenes in long camera takes, allowing the actors to find their own pace and rhythm, a useful approach for this material.

And he’s clearly an actor’s director. Crystal isn’t a deep actor, but he’s easy in this role, and he and King share the automatic timing of the comedian. JoBeth Williams, who has a thankless part as the girlfriend, makes herself ingratiating through sheer energy.

King does nicely as the grouchy old man, who prefers communicating entirely in one-liners. He takes great pride that, although he’s never had a speaking part, he’s considered “The King of the Extras,” and has hobnobbed with all the greats. He imagines his Variety obituary and proudly assumes he’ll be remembered as “the 19th man to yell ‘I am Spartacus.'” King’s pure professionalism almost makes you believe in this man, if not this movie.

First published in The Herald, October 6, 1988

Is it time to bring this movie back? I cannot say, for I have forgotten it completely. The high hopes I had for Henry Winkler’s directing career did not pan out – he did Cop and ½ , a Burt Reynolds comedy I wouldn’t wish on anybody’s filmography, and then a surprisingly small amount of TV stuff. But his other career has maintained. In my mind this film sits on a double bill with Crystal’s Mr. Saturday Night, another showbiz cupcake laced with arsenic.


The Big Chill

December 19, 2011

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” asked the Beach Boys, in words that seem to sum up the great yearning of rock ‘n roll music. How great to be different from adults, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some of the privileges. How great to get the fringe benefits without the side effects. Man, that’d be the day. For many people, this day of freedom with limited responsibilities really happens—some of us call it college, although it can assume other guises. The sun is out, dreams take flight, and companionship is constant and crucial—at least, that’s the way it takes shape through the filter of memory. Two things are certain about the endless summer: 1) It will end, and 2) It will be romanticized.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” pops up in the course of Lawrence (Body Heat) Kasdan’s new movie, The Big Chill, and it’s a pretty appropriate choice. The Big Chill is about a group of people, a decade or so past their college chumminess, who reunite for a weekend. They’ve been drawn together by the suicide—and subsequent funeral—of one of the old gang. His suicide haunts their rosy memories, as does the fact that none of them has lived up to the uncompromising ideals of the good old days. Many-tentacled adulthood has grasped them all, and the weekend looms as a chance to recapture some of the old warmth. Is the fire still there? God only knows. But few moviegoers will be able to resist that delicious feeling of settling back and awaiting the various sexual, emotional, chemical, geographical combinations that tend to erupt on such an occasion.

That brings us up against the fact that we’ve seen this kind of movie before—recently and beautifully in John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, which also presented a weekend of ex-radicals discovering a sheepish mellowness as well as certain ties that bind. Some people may be bothered by similarities between the two films. Frankly, I found it easy to look at the first five minutes of The Big Chill and say, “Oh, it’s going to be something like Secaucus Seven. Okay. Let’s go.” It was very easy, and Kasdan and his co-screenwriter Barbara Benedek have their own path to chart across this tried-and-true territory.

The on-screen people Kasdan has gathered together to make this weekend interesting are some of the most exciting young actors around right now. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close host the reunion in their fine old Southern mansion; their marriage, made comfortable by the profits from their burgeoning shoe company (and despite Close’s past affair with the dear departed) seems to be going all right. Maybe that’s what’s bugging them. Mary Kay Place plays an executive who is sick of men but desirous of a child, a situation that is, shall we say, pregnant with possibilities. Tom Berenger plays the pretty star of one of those beefcake private-eye TV shoes; he may not be as savagely bright as the rest of the gang, but he’s very well-meaning (that’s a good piece of casting; Berenger has been a male-model type for a while now, and you can almost sense his excitement at being in something good. The fact that he’s not as sharp an actor as Glenn Close or William Hurt simply serves his character). Hurt plays a seriously burned-out (and impotent) Vietnam vet whose drug-dealing has turned into something more than a sideline. Jeff Goldblum is the former crusading college-newspaper reporter who now spends his time rationalizing his job at People magazine. JoBeth Williams wanted to be a writer, but finds herself deeply into housewifery these days; she is looking for something—specifically a long-delayed something with Berenger—to happen, and it’s now or never.

That’s a terrific bunch, and there’s not an off-key performance in the lot. Two others, outsiders, figure into the proceedings: Williams’ unbearably straight-arrow husband is played by Don Galloway (yes, of TV’s “Ironside”—another fine casting stroke), and the air-headed young girlfriend of the deceased is played by Meg Tilly. In a bad movie, Tilly’s character might be meant to represent the purity of the instinctual nature as opposed to the overly analytical attitudes of the main group of friends. In The Big Chill, she’s something less—and more—than that. Her silliness plays against that sort of symbolic interpretation, and her fascination with the morbid Hurt leads the film towards a sense of revitalization. Kasdan seems interested in facing clichés and lashing back at them, and her character is no exception.

There’s a delight in turning things on their head here that springs less from cruelty than honesty. Some of the heated dialogue exchanges are choice, particularly when a character will spout something sensible and platitudinous—the kind of thing that usually passes for wisdom—whereupon someone else may pause a beat before saying, “That is such a crock of shit, I can’t believe it.” (JoBeth Williams’ unexpectedly fiery reaction to Berenger’s gentlemanly thanks-but-no-thanks retreat from her sexual gambit is the greatest of these moments.)

The Big Chill is full of good dialogue, but some of the things I’ll remember most about it have nothing to do with words: the look on JoBeth Williams’ face when she turns to look out her car window (and toward the camera) as a way of taking her mind—or, at least her eyes—off her husband as they drive away from the funeral; the lovely group dynamic as an after-dinner clean-up is transformed into a dance; the camera movement that captures the moment Glenn Close gets an idea about Mary Kay Place’s desire for a partner in progeny.

These people speak with grown-up mouths and move with grown-up bodies, but we get the idea they’re more confused than they were in college. They could sing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,” for years, and still wonder when the state of adulthood will really happen. The Big Chill gives a benevolent blessing to this state of mind. “The good old days” may well be a crock of shit, but it matters, as we learn by the end of this weekend, that some of that time remains alive, even after the big chill.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

This is one of those reviews where I have to chuckle about the worldly wisdom being doled out by a 24-year-old writer. But fine, that’s in the spirit of the movie, I guess. I haven’t seen the picture since it came out, but I infer that to the generation that was just coming up, The Big Chill is the epitome of Squaresville, which I guess I understand. By the way, I have always wondered exactly where the title came from; Kasdan has explained it as a reference to the cooling of youthful fires, which is clear, but it sounds like a quote from something. A couple of years after seeing the movie, I came across the phrase “big chill” in a Kerouac novel, I think The Subterraneans, and wondered whether it could be a source, but who the hell knows.