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  Ironweed The Depression Has Not Lifted
Year: 1987
Director: Hector Babenco
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Carroll Baker, Michael O'Keefe, Diane Venora, Fred Gwynne, Margaret Whitton, Tom Waits, Jake Dengel, Nathan Lane, James Gammon, Will Zahrn, Laura Esterman, Joe Grifasi, Hy Anzell, Bethel Leslie, Ted Levine, Frank Whaley
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Albany, New York, 1938 and the Great Depression shows no signs of dissipating, especially for those on the lowest rungs of society's ladder, and as October is turning to November, the cold is only going to make life harder for the down and outs who congregate in the streets. They can get a bowl of soup and piece of bread at the Christian mission, but for many of them they are looking forward to their next drink instead, and equally, that will be as much the death of them as the freezing temperatures. Frances Phelan (Jack Nicholson) walked out on his family years ago after a personal tragedy meant he could not face them anymore, but for now, he has decided to give up alcohol...

Ironweed began life as a novel by William Kennedy, and as it won the Pulitzer Prize it was optioned for a movie, the author penning the screenplay to make it as faithful as possible. The title was so prestigious that the studio spent a lot of money on what would really have been little different as a lower-budget effort, and in fact may have benefited from the more down at heel appearance and tone that would have accompanied it, but nope, the suits were having none of this and therefore contracted two of the biggest movie stars around to lead it. Nicholson and Meryl Streep were those stars, and for many observers overbalanced the results with their undeniable wattage together.

If you could not take millionaire celebrities seriously as homeless alcoholics, then you would struggle with Ironweed, yet they were paid to act, so it should not have been as big an issue as it was. Director Hector Babenco, fresh of Kiss of the Spider Woman, was a hot name in the biz, and if he had cast unknowns as he did in his breakthrough effort Pixote, he might have found this endeavour garnering more respect - though both leads were predictably offered Academy Award nominations, not that they won, but they got their pat on the head nonetheless which merely served to underline the insular nature of the industry in Hollywood: you would expect their grim drama to be rewarded.

Naturally, in the era of Back to the Future and Indiana Jones and whatnot, the film was lost at the box office when shiny things were capturing audiences' attentions, though for those who had read the book there were some favourable responses; also from those who respected the cast and didn't mind them dressing down significantly for these parts. The plot was not so much a clear narrative line as a selection of anecdotes in the lives of Francis and Streep's Helen who he has grown attached to as she looked after him when he was at his lowest ebb. If it was lower than what we see here, we can only imagine how desolate he has been, yet the bad times are difficult to shake, either because of the circumstances they are trapped in, or because the memories of what landed them there are haunting the characters.

Literally, in the case of Francis, who keeps seeing ghosts of people he killed - life as a "bum" has more serious drawbacks than keeping warm in winter, as there may be violence involved as well, though he feels terrible guilt at accidentally killing a tram driver during a transport strike. The man who threatened to cut off his feet to get his shoes that he murdered, well, that was a matter of survival, but he haunts his thoughts all the same. Then there is the baby son who he dropped while drunk, his most onerous burden of memory. All the way through we were asked to see these hopeless specimens as three-dimensional people, which only made it more of an ordeal, since if you have any sympathy for someone who will never see their lot improve, it can be crushing. This determination to find the nobility in failure extended to those stars - even the most dejected can be played by huge celebrities! But for all those reservations, it did have integrity, it was simply a grind for anyone seeking entertainment and an indulgence for those wanting to be depressed. Music by John Morris.

[Eureka's Blu-ray has the trailer and an informative booklet as extra features.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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