Sony // 1970 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // December 29th, 1999
He rode the fast lane on the road to nowhere.
A bleak character study of a potential musical genius, Five Easy Pieces presents a masterful if hard to watch performance by Jack Nicholson in his prime.
Particularly if you read some of the reviews from more prominent critics, Five Easy Pieces is spoken of by some people in such glowing, rapturous terms that you feel as if you ought to like it. This is a feeling that many people seem to have regarding European movies, where they feel that they need to like them in order to be truly cool and sophisticated. It's an odd feeling, really, but as the last seconds rolled on Five Easy Pieces its one that came to mind. Watching the film was certainly an experience, and the film had its moments, but at the end I just can't bring myself to like it. Let me try to briefly state how I arrived at my conclusion.
The acting is certainly first rate, most notably from Jack Nicholson. While in more recent times he can go over the top (notably Batman and Mars Attacks!), in the early part of the 1970s he was a first-class actor, tackling roles of intimidating complexity and range (like The Last Detail and Chinatown). His Robert Eroica Dupea is perhaps the most challenging of all, partly because as he has admitted his own life has had a certain similarity at one time and partly because this is a most unlikable character. Unlike his recent turn in As Good As It Gets, here in Five Easy Pieces his character never redeems himself or evokes sympathy. By the end of the movie, you simply detest Dupea as a miserable wretch of humanity, and if an actor can make an audience feel this way, he's done his job and then some.
Dupea is the central character above all others here, but the supporting cast does its job, which is to emphasize and accentuate Dupea's persistently uncomfortable life. Trivia fiends will have a field day here spotting future famous faces, from Kelly (Sally Struthers -- remember "All in the Family?"), Terry Grouse (Toni Basil -- one hit wonder with "Mickey"), and Carl Dupea (Ralph Waite -- the patriarch in "The Waltons.")
Unfortunately, acting alone cannot carry a movie -- there has to be enough of a plot to carry the audience along and keep us interested. Five Easy Pieces has snappy dialogue, painfully tense family scenes, and enough mood to keep a Prozac salesman happy, but it doesn't have much of a plot. The inner demons that drove Dupea to discard his family and musical life and to devote himself to an uncommitted, rootless existence are touched on only briefly, leaving us to uncertainly speculate about his reasons. Pacing is another element of plot left out in Five Easy Pieces, with the film drifting as aimlessly along as Dupea through life. Perhaps that's the point, but it makes for a number of yawns, encroaching boredom, and a lot of looking at the elapsed time on my DVD player.
For those of you interested in the story, we find Robert Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson) with a blue-collar job working in an oil field, Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black) as a beautiful, ditzy girlfriend, and spending much of his free time drinking beer and bowling. However, it is soon clear that while he is in his situation by choice, it is a peculiarly self-loathing choice, as he cannot muster any sense of commitment to his girlfriend and his contempt for his blue-collar colleagues and his work is simmering just under the surface. In unexpected ways, Dupea exhibits a suppressed talent for music, such as when he climbs into the back of a truck during a traffic jam. He tickles the ivories, lost in his own world, even as the truck drives off to its destination.
Nothing much seems to reach Dupea. He is oblivious (or merely thickly insensitive) to his own responsibility when he learns that Rayette is pregnant. When working buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush) is hauled off by the police, Dupea shrugs it off without feeling and moves on. It is only when he meets his off-kilter and talented piano playing sister Partita Dupea (Lois Smith) that we see any sign of emotional life in Robert. He learns from her that his father is critically ill, and agrees to see his father one last time. On the road with Rayette, he picks up two oddly opinionated hitchhikers, Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes) and Terry Grouse (Toni Basil), and has an episode of rage at a prickly waitress (Lorna Thayer) in a classic movie scene about chicken salad. (Believe me, we all can relate to his frustration here!)
At his family's house, Robert Dupea finds the same boring, elite upper-class atmosphere he left years before, with his brother Carl (Ralph Waite), his sister Partita, and his silent, stricken father Nicholas (William Challee). The striking difference is in the beautiful Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), an aspiring and gifted pianist, who is learning from and affianced to his brother Carl. Haunted by the ghost of his musical past and drawn to her sophisticated beauty, Robert passionately has an affair with her, but both know it won't last. An after-dinner chat between Carl and Catherine's friends and Rayette brings Robert's dilemma into sharp focus, displaying the jarring clash of highbrow pointy headedness versus low-brow trailer-park sensibility.
The conflict drives Robert from the room, and ultimately, out of his life. Before leaving, he tries in his own fashion to explain himself to his silently disapproving father, but never quite releases the festering pain of his own torment. Still imprisoned by his personal hell and unwilling (or incapable) of breaking free, Robert Dupea shrugs off his life and goes forth into the great unknown, leaving his former self behind. As the movie fades out, we suspect he will never find peace, a restless soul forever roaming, with only the faintest ember of inner life still burning.
The video transfer is thankfully anamorphic. Columbia must be congratulated for having the wisdom to release anamorphic transfers for even its lesser known catalog titles as this film. The film is moderately dirty and blemished and exhibits a fair amount of grain. In one dark scene about two thirds of the way through, there were a whole pattern of thin vertical blue lines across the screen, which I suspect is due to a poor original film element. Colors are reasonably saturated, considering the age of the film, but nothing to get too excited about. The picture tends to a softer look, and lacks shadow detail in the less lit scenes. On the plus side, I did not notice any digital enhancement problems.
The audio claims to be digitally remastered, but it is still your basic mono track. You can hear the dialogue fine and there are no extraneous pops or hiss, but that's about all you can say (positive or negative).
Columbia drops the ball on the extra content, more so than on its other recent Nicholson release, The Last Detail. There is only one trailer -- for As Good As It Gets (as before, good quality and letterboxed). It peeves me when the trailer for the movie is left off its own disc, as it can be an interesting insight into how the film was presented to audiences at the time it was released. As with The Last Detail, the talent files are a joke, only listing director Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, and Karen Black, and again with little bio and a short filmography.
The disc comes in the preferred Amaray keep case and has the usual two-page color insert with some production notes.
If for no other reason, you need to see Five Easy Pieces for the famous "chicken salad sandwich" scene in the diner. I strongly recommend a rental, but a purchase ($25 retail) is for devoted Nicholson fans and those whose tastes permit repeat viewings.
On the strength of the evidence on Nicholson's performance, the film is acquitted. Columbia is again admonished that even catalog titles deserve a complete set of basic extras.
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Bonus Trailer
* Talent Files
* Criterion Laserdisc Liner Notes