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Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep are boozy lost souls...

By CATHY BURKE, United Press International

Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep are boozy lost souls in 'Ironweed,' based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay.

They give heart-wrenching performances as bums in Albany, N.Y., in 1938 -- in character all the way down to their grime-streaked hands. Streep's Helen Archer and Nicholson's Francis Phelan are frail human beings broken in a million places, and yet they cling to their dignity. 'Some may call them sins,' Helen says of her life with Francis. 'I call them decisions.'

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The quality of the performances are first-rate in 'Ironweed,' including supporting roles played by Carroll Baker, as Annie Phelan, and Tom Waits, as the bum Rudy. And Hector Babenco's direction ('Kiss of the Spider Woman') gives an emphasis to both the sadness and detachment of this movie, as if someone from another country (Babenco is from Argentina) decides to chronicle the doubly crippling effect of alcohol and economic Depression on some of the nation's most fragile citizens.

But 'Ironweed' makes the sadness seem isolated and dangerous and unreal; it only exists where the bums live, it doesn't reach into the lives of good families.

Such detachment condemns Francis and Helen to a hell they never seem to quite deserve. 'Ironweed' seems to say that fragile souls are pitiful, but far away from most of us, and doomed no matter where and how they choose to live.

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The fragility of Francis' and Helen's lives is underscored when Francis returns to Albany, his hometown, after 22 years on the bum - starting the day his infant son died, when he instantly became a relentless drunk, working only long enough and hard enough to scratch enough money for the next 'flop' and drink. 'I had good reason, as you know,' Francis screams to the ghosts of those whose deaths he has caused. The ghosts keep reappearing, mockingly.

Even when Francis stops in to finally face his wife, Annie, and his remaining son and daughter, he can't manage to stay. We never do know why it seems so much easier for Francis to run from forgiveness than to accept it.

Meanwhile, Helen single-mindedly gathers together the few belongings that she and Francis have pawned. They contain the only rememberances she has of the greatest love of her life -- her father - and the music career she abandoned. Without her father's protection, Helen chooses to drift, and where Francis' ghosts aren't real, Helen is almost a ghost herself.

Streep plays the old and tired Helen Archer with such pathos it is unsettling; Helen Archer's soul is so exposed to the cold and hunger and cruelty of the world, you wish she would die so she could be free of it.

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This film is rated R. Movie has violence and sexual content.

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