Film Reviews

Codger in the Wry

Playwright Herb Gardner managed to immortalize retirement-age concerns on the American stage with his 1986 Tony Award-winning I'm Not Rappaport, and now his film version--which he also directed--comes along to try to reclaim geriatric humor from the Grumpy Old Men gang. Of course, one of those grumpy old men, Walter Matthau, is here as well, playing the Jewish park-bench revolutionary Nat, a '30s union radical to the core and not above an elaborately spun story to bring an overcharging butcher and an ageist tenants'-committee representative to their knees.

His daughter (Amy Irving) is anxious to get the 81-year-old Nat in a home (she's the dogcatcher in his life), and his rabble-rousing antics don't always succeed (an attempt to reason with a mugger gets him a nice gash on the head). But to Nat, the fight is still everything. For Midge (Ossie Davis)--Nat's African-American, half-blind, also-81-year-old Central Park audience of one and unwilling companion in some of these adventures--the idea of anything but dealing with cold, hard reality is the true shortcut to oblivion.

I'm Not Rappaport--the title refers to an old vaudeville routine Nat cherishes--isn't any less formulaic than a Grumpy or My Fellow Americans-style movie or any less rife with bickering, but Gardner's punchy, actor-friendly dialogue gives a couple of old hands such as Matthau and Davis some meaty scenes to chew on. Although the movie is too long by about 20 minutes, the more theatrical and poky it remains, the more charming it is. Gardner gets to shoot his movie in Central Park but manages to make you think there's a bank of seats somewhere off camera holding a paying audience, as if this were seniors street theater. The effect is nice, actually, and gives this movie's most cinematic resource--the close-up--a kind of hallowed glow.

These are supreme faces and voices: Matthau's beagle-ish looks light up as he tries to sell Midge on a bit of hoary commie rhetoric, and Davis' brilliant deadpan reactions don't prepare you for the jolt Nat provides when Midge breaks out a laugh or gets his dander up. They even get stoned together (on Medicaid-sanctioned weed, thank you) in one hilarious sequence, proving once and for all that drug humor doesn't have to be the sole province of aimless youth.

Rappaport is a solidly written piece of old-age propaganda, thankfully devoid of the sentimentality for which Gardner (A Thousand Clowns) can be known. Nat's nattering on about ideals and not giving up are most heartfelt when we realize that he's in the fight of his life just trying to live out his days on the park bench he loves so much. "The sin of leavin' slow" is what Midge calls society's intolerant view of the elderly. It's also a sin in Hollywood's eyes, but in a season of slick yet dull studio releases, I'm Not Rappaport can revel in its unhurried pace knowing it's more entertaining than, say, the cookie-cutter codgerdom of grumpy old man Jack Lemmon's My Fellow Americans.

I'm Not Rappaport
Directed by Herb Gardner; with Walter Matthau, Ossie Davis, Amy Irving and Craig T. Nelson.


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Robert Abele