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  Five Easy Pieces Walk On By
Year: 1970
Director: Bob Rafelson
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Fannie Flagg, Sally Struthers, Marlena McGuire, Richard Stahl, Lois Smith, Helena Kallianiotes, Toni Basil, Lorna Thayer, Susan Anspach, Ralph Waite, William Challee, John P. Ryan, Irene Dailey
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) works down South on the oil rigs, it's not his most rewarding job but it provides him with an income, and it's something to do until something else happens along. He lives with his girlfriend Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), who if he's honest, he feels superior to intellectually, but he is also attracted to her and tolerates her lapses into mindless chatter and endless playing of the same Tammy Wynette records on her turntable. However, Robert has a short temper and is constantly trying to keep himself in check and not fly off the handle, which he can not always successfully do: maybe he needs to take a trip somewhere, maybe North, back home...

If Easy Rider put the tin lid on the nineteen-sixties, Five Easy Pieces, from many of the same people, kicked off the seventies with an indication of what kind of troubled hero would dominate the cinematic landscape, sometimes bullish, but also with a thick streak of neurosis as the movies began to examine what it was that made these men, and women too, tick. Along with a greater emphasis on explosions and spectacle for the blockbusters, character studies made their way into even the biggest movies, especially in Hollywood, where the new leading men were garlanded with awards for conveying a focus on their characters' inner lives, but Nicholson arguably set the scene.

Fair enough, Mike Nichols had given us The Graduate near the end of the previous decade, and Robert Dupea owed plenty to Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin there, but that hit was at least partly a comedy, we were invited to laugh at Benjamin's embarrassment and cringe at his cluelessness, whereas Nicholson may have portrayed a young man equally adrift in life, but he was not a silly little boy trying to be a man. In this, Dupea had assuredly grown up, become his own person, but looking around he did not like what he saw as he realised despite his talents - for playing the piano, hence we hear "five easy pieces" on that instrument - he would never fit in with the higher classes.

Yet he would struggle with the lower classes like Rayette as well, for he had been educated out of an ability to get along with people like co-worker Billy Green Bush: a perfectly amiable chap, aside from a tendency for lawbreaking, but Robert suspects rightly he just doesn't have enough in common with him and his colleagues, nor his girlfriend or any of the other women who cross his path. This has been interpreted as typical seventies chauvinism by some, but director Bob Rafelson fully acknowledged the screenplay was shaped and settled by Carole Eastman (actress turned pseudonymous writer), and her observations were far more critical of the protagonist than many of the contemporary dramas which tended romanticise their troubled male leads and the problems they were wrestling with, no matter that she had a sympathy for Bobby's family background shame.

As a plot, Five Easy Pieces verged on the shapeless, a domestic drama here, a road movie there, but one aspect that made it more palatable was its offbeat sense of humour. Yes, Black was annoying - for a long time she was regarded as a bit of a joke for her kooky looks and Scientology advocacy, and you could argue she did herself no favours in that image with her performance here - but Rayette means well, and it has been a matter of debate ever since whether she deserved Robert's ultimate treatment of her. However, that ending, which sums up why the search for meaning in your life will be fruitless if you ignore the most basic elements in favour of intellectual soul-seeking, should really have been one of the most famous of the decade, and it would have been had it not for the comedy scene that has passed into legend. Nicholson methodically going through his order with an obstinate waitress (Lorna Thayer's moment of glory) as his fury simmers away that yet again simple happiness is eludes him was a brilliant bit in one of the first of many in the seventies to be called a cult movie, a status it retains.

[This is part of The Criterion Collection, on Blu-ray with these features:

Restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography László Kovács, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson
Soul Searching in "Five Easy Pieces," a 2009 video piece featuring Rafelson
BBStory, a 2009 documentary about the legendary film company BBS Productions, with Rafelson; actors Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and Ellen Burstyn; filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom; and others
Documentary from 2009 about BBS featuring critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley
Audio excerpts from a 1976 AFI interview with Rafelson
Trailers and teasers
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by critic Kent Jones.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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