Monday, February 22, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Harry & Son" (1984)


"Harry & Son" isn't a great or even particularly good movie. It's very much an "actors' film," more focused on mood, dialogue and moments than any kind of coherent narrative, and suffers because of this. The story of a fractured father-son relationship, it wanders here, wanders there, and winds up right about where we expect it.

But the film -- one of six directed by Paul Newman and the only with a screenwriting credit -- has a couple of scenes of absolute pure perfection. The movie will just sort of amble along, one dialogue scene falling into another, our attention will stray, and then you'll get a moment that lands with a helluva emotional wallop.

It's like an aging boxer who can't move around very well anymore, but watch out for that haymaker. Let's talk about those two scenes. 

In the first, Harry Keach (Newman), a cussed widower who has lost his construction job for health reasons, is hosting his married daughter, Nina (Katherine Borowitz), her newborn daughter and her husband at his home, which he shares with his son, Howie (Robby Benson). Harry doesn't much like Nina's husband, solely because he sells insurance, and has been estranged from them to the point he's not even clear on the baby's gender.

Nina has dropped a hint to Howie that she'd like to have their mother's fine china set, since it's not being used after she passed two years earlier. During the visit they manage to drop enough hints to Harry that he offers it to them. But while fetching a box, he intentionally soaks the bottom with hot water. So the moment his son-in-law picks it up, all the china falls out the bottom, smashing to bits and cutting the guy's foot to boot.

Harry thinks this is a real hoot. "Got any insurance on that foot?!?" he yells as they beat an angry retreat.

Howie can't believe it. A smart, sensitive kid who's trying to make it a a writer, he's fairly indifferent to his brother-in-law and to the china. But he can't fathom why his dad would trash a family heirloom just to show up his son-in-law -- likely further pushing Nina away, possibly forever.

"This was my mother's. She cherished this!"

Nina returns, having forgot her keys. Howie helps Harry pick up the broken china into another box -- which then proceeds to fall out the bottom, the kid having just pulled the same trick as his old man. Nina can't help laughing at the juvenile hijinks as Harry playfully chases Howie into the yard. 

But then he pulls up, another twinge from the heart condition that's been bothering him, and for which he refuses to seek treatment. Harry leans on a tree, smiling as Nina and her husband enjoy a rare good laugh at his expense, trying to conceal his pain. Letting them have their fun is as close to apology as Harry is capable.

Howie sees it all, of course; Howie has made a study of Harry. Not just because he's writing about him for the submissions to publishers that are constantly rejected, but also because he loves his pa more than anything else in this world.

In just five minutes, "Harry & Son" lays out the entire dynamic of this family. We understand the pain, the anger, the resentment, the rare but spectacular moments of joy. 

Now to the second scene -- and I'll admit this one brought me to tears.

It's near the end, Harry and Howie are still going at it. Harry has kicked the kid out of the house, hoping the need for housing and shelter will spur him to give up the endless string of dead-end jobs he soon quits. They've gone out for a rare night on the town, and after a bit of fun Harry has fallen back into his default sullen mood as they drive home.

He's disappointed in his kid, who was high school valedictorian but is now a free-spirited bum, in his mind. He can't stand that he lost his job running the big crane wrecking ball, tearing down garish old facades of the Florida beach town where they live so they can slap up new, even more garish ones. (It was shot in Fort Worth.) 

Mostly, Harry is angry because he was robbed of the happy retirement with the woman he loved, which is what he deserved.

A piece of mail has arrived for Howie, which he has resisted opening because it's surely another rejection letter. So he offers to let Harry, who quietly peels the envelope with a check for $1,500 and an enthusiastic offer to publish more of Howie's stories.

And the moment just... lingers. Achingly, gorgeously. Harry's a blue-collar guy lacking a way with words, so he rubs a rough hand across the kid's bushy hair. Newman just sits there with his neck cocked, staring at this son he has struggled so hard to understand, and in doing so failed to take pride in for the wonderful young man he's become. 

Tears well in the old guy's eyes, and slowly -- as if being pulled in by an inexorable force that he can't and doesn't want to resist -- he leans over and cradles Howie's head in his arms.

We know, without being told, that this is probably the first time the two have embraced since Howie was a kid. What an utterly crystalline moment of cinematic grace.

The rest of the movie... well, not so much. 

Screenwriter Newman and collaborator Ronald Buck make the common mistake of not knowing how to pare down the elements of Raymond DeCapite's novel, and end up using the kitchen sink approach. There are too many supporting characters and subplots, meant to fill out the background of Harry and Howie's story but wind up pushing it aside.

Some of these pieces are just fine in of themselves. I liked the bit centered around Raymond (Ossie Davis), a man not unlike Harry who Howie takes a shine to. Howie tries to repossess Raymond's truck during one of his many job tryouts, and the old guy ends up inviting him in for a beer. Howie realizes he's not cut out for (legally) stealing cars, but gets them to hire Raymond instead, who finds his niche and is soon flush with money and purpose.

We also briefly meet Morgan Freeman in one of his early film roles as a hardcase foreman at a factory job where Howie lasts less than 10 minutes. 

I was surprisingly uninterested in Lilly, played by Newman's real-life wife, Joanne Woodward, who was Harry's wife's best friend. She runs a local pet shop, and there's a flirtation of something between Lilly and Harry. But the movie keeps misplacing the romantic thread. It's the sort of thing that needed to be front and center of a different story, not on the sidelines of this one.

Lilly's daughter, Katie (Ellen Barkin, age 30 playing about 20), used to go with Howie in high school -- along with every other guy, it seems. She's now pregnant with some guy's baby, and she and Howie wind up gradually easing back into each other's lives. The character of Katie is terribly underwritten and hard to fathom. She acts resentful of Howie for having dumped her, which is a strange emotion for a serial cheater to feel.

Wilford Brimley is similarly underused as Tom, Harry's brother, who runs a surplus store and still pines wistfully for that time he bought up a lot of army surplus junk and made 15 grand in a single day. We may find it hard to believe they're brothers, though Newman was actually nine years older than Brimley.

Judith Ivey turns up as Sally, an amorous secretary who takes Howie, and later Harry, into the sack for a tumble. 

Newman is solid in "Harry & Son," but really this is Benson's movie. With his big blue eyes and lean frame, he's believable as Paul Newman's kid. I liked how he used his voice in the performance, speaking mostly with a very soft, high tone but occasionally pulling out baritone snarls when required. (Which he also used to great effect in "Beauty and the Beast.")

Benson was a teen idol in the 1970s whose career never quite took off to star stratosphere. He spends a lot of time without much in the way of clothes during the movie, and the camera makes sure to leer over his physique, which is boyishly skinny without a lot of built-up muscle aside from an early cinematic example of the six-pack -- not terribly dissimilar from Newman's own body as a young man.

Like Barkin Benson was older than he played, 28 when the film came out. That same year he had the first of a several heart surgeries to correct an aortic valve birth defect, likely ending his days as a shirtless pin-up boy. Though he's remained busy to this day, including doing a lot of voice work.

No, "Harry & Son" isn't a particularly well-made movie. But it boasts two perfect scenes that will stay with me forever. That's more than most movies can say. 


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