"God, you're a shit, you know that?"
"Yes, and since you know it, what the hell are you doing here?"
Gowan McGland (Tom Conti) is indeed a shit. Although his work as a poet is widely respected, his reputation as a drunk and a womanizer is beginning to outshine his literary achievements. Having lost his job as a professor, he finds himself in New England on a lecture tour, which he regards with great disdain, speaking to women who ask him the same questions and fall all over themselves to get close to him. He's too unmotivated to write more poetry, and he's just learned that his ex-wife Edith (Kara Wilson, Conti's real-life wife) is securing her financial future by writing a biography of him. He's feeling pretty sorry for himself when he meets Geneva (Kelly McGillis, in her debut performance) on a train, and is immediately smitten.
Although few modern audiences will be familiar with the film, Reuben, Reuben has a pretty impressive pedigree. For one thing, Conti, appearing in his first US film, was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as McGland. The film was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, which was penned by none other than Julius J. Epstein, one of the twins who co-wrote Casablanca. Viewed today, the humor is very subtle (I imagine many viewers won't even consider it a comedy, considering the film's bittersweet nature), and the movie drifts a little in terms of tone and pacing, but the quality of Conti's performance and Epstein's script make it easy to see why many people who remember it look at it as a lost gem.
Although McGland is no longer writing poetry, Epstein's dialogue effortlessly establishes the character as a sharp wit and an eloquent speaker, happy to unfurl a barb-tongued comment at any and everyone around him. Even something as simple as his job choice is expressed with a unique voice: "My whole body cried out against the inhumanity of regular employment." (Some measure of credit also goes to the original novel, by Peter De Vries, and Herman Shumlin, who adapted the book into a play titled "Spofford"). Meanwhile, McGland is surrounded by a host of memorable characters, including his predatory sister-in-law, Lucille (E. Katherine Kerr), Geneva's aerobic boyfriend Tad (Damon Douglas), and the man who owns the property where Gowan is staying in New England, Frank Spofford (Roberts Blossom), who also happens to be Geneva's grandfather. Each of these characters only gets so much screen time, but each one makes a vivid impression (Blossom especially, who gets an interesting little rant about his town turning into a vacation spot, and casually snipes at McGland when he abandons a drink).
The real star of the show, however, is Conti, and he's excellent. Although he has an expected amount of fun delivering McGland's world-weary sarcasm ("You know, chivalry and all that shit"), he really sells the sadness of the character, unafraid to make McGland look like a complete sad sack when he's being one. In a key sequence on a train, he punctures his comic drunk-man routine by slipping into a bathroom and breaking into tears, and his delivery of the line quoted at the top of this review really cuts to the bone. He also has a nice platonic chemistry with McGillis, which is interesting; although their relationship is more than friendly, the distance between them ends up serving the story, emphasizing the age (and more importantly, maturity) difference between the two characters.
Directorially, Reuben, Reuben is pretty simple (the most interesting bit is a scene where two women fight over possesion of McGland underneath a tablecloth), and the film isn't making any sort of grand philosophical points. It's a character study, and a fairly bleak one. Many movies would be afraid to stick with a character the audience is likely to feel sorry for, but Epstein keeps his attention trained on how McGland's flaws are destroying him rather than suggesting the "good" guy at the center is just trying to break loose. In keeping with the film's overall tone, Epstein closes the picture with the most bittersweet moment of all -- a funny, yet heartbreaking moment that perfectly punctuates the movie's black comic character portrait.
Olive Films keeps to their tradition of using the original poster artwork for their releases, gracing their cover with a painting of Tom Conti. Not the most exciting art, but not PhotoShopped nonsense, either. The back cover uses their standard template, which is simple and classy, and the disc is tucked into a boxy Blu-Ray case, along with a postcard featuring a mini catalog of Olive Blu-Ray titles.
The Video and Audio
There are aspects of Olive's Blu-Ray releases that could be improved, but based on the discs of theirs I've seen thus far, their presentations are not one of them. This 1.85:1 1080p AVC video master is another strong entry, offering vivid colors without a hint of modern re-timing and excellent detail for this thirty-year-old movie. The only minor quibbles preventing this from being a "perfect" transfer -- and it looks great either way -- are some flecks in the image and a slight noisiness to the grain structure in some shots.
Although some would likely prefer stereo, I also have no complaints regarding the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track included on the disc. This is a dialogue-driven film and a remix isn't necessary. Some of the dialogue is a little fuzzy, but this seems to be inherent to the source materials and not a problem with the mix. The only strike in this department is that no captions or subtitles are included. Not only should this be a given on any and all DVD and Blu-Rays, but it would've been extra nice thanks to Conti's Irish accent.
Recommended. Again, those looking for a laugh riot are advised to seek lighter fare, but this drama / comedy remains fresh after 30 years, quietly and skillfully camouflaging piercing truths about its protagonist in dry, subtle humor.
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