Lionsgate // 1987 // 143 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 4th, 2009
Based upon William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
In some ways, Ironweed is like a perfect storm of a movie. William Kennedy won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, and he adapted his own novel for the screenplay. Director Hector Babenco was fresh off his triumph as the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated director of Kiss of the Spider Woman, while actors Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep were similarly coming off of career-defining performances in films like Terms of Endearment and Sophie's Choice. All of this talent focused on a heartrending story of pain and alcoholic shame, resulting in award nominations for both lead actors.
Ironweed is the story of Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson, As Good as It Gets), an alcoholic who returns to his haunted home of Albany, New York. There he begins a period of drinking with pals Helen (Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice) and Rudy (Tom Waits, Down By Law). Even surrounded by friends, Francis can't overcome the (literal) ghosts of his past. Two decades ago Francis dropped his infant son, and the spirits of men he has killed still haunt him. Working as a gravedigger, death surrounds the drunkard Phelan as the life he could have led appears before him, ever out of reach.
Ironweed is clearly not date-night material. It's a depressing portrait of a tragic alcoholic, but not without its hopeful aspects. In many ways this is a bum-as-noble-savage movie, peeking at the fierce loyalty and surprising tenderness of the wino set. At every moment the film threatens to teeter over into camp, and the only thing that keeps it from being a weepy, made-for-TV movie is the amazing cast that Babenco assembled for the film. Jack Nicholson (one of the few actors of his generation to weather the eighties in style) is squarely between his brilliant early phase (represented by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and the later, mugging-oriented films of his later period. His Francis is noble but a bit pathetic, like he's barely holding himself together. Meryl Streep, in contrast, almost underplays Helen, making her mysterious. This mysterious quality only helps the depiction of tragic loss. Finally, I have to mention Tom Waits, one of my favorite musicians-turned-actors. His Rudy is not so different from the dozens of boozehounds Waits has sung about for decades, but Waits' willingness to make the character quirky saves him from being just another drunk.
Babenco opts for a very stagy style of Ironweed, with a stylized period feel. His actors follow suit, offering a less cinematic style of acting and one that seems more suited to the stage. This disconnect between the medium and the material helps keep the source novel's sense of magic realism intact.
However, even though Ironweed is a film that is worth watching, this DVD is impossible to recommend. This is perhaps the single most pathetic DVD release I've seen by a major distributor. The first mistake is that the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio hasn't been preserved. This is a full-frame transfer of a widescreen film, and that's simply not acceptable these days (unless both a widescreen and full-screen version are released concurrently, and even then it's not cool). If that weren't enough, the source for this transfer looks like a bad VHS source. Albany is supposed to look grimy and dirty, but that's no excuse for this poorly rendered look. I don't mind a poor transfer if that's all that's available, but the studio should be more upfront about the poor quality of this presentation. The audio isn't quite as bad, but since this is a very dialogue-driven film there wasn't much to screw up in the first place. The final kick in the pants is the lack of extras. All we get is a photo gallery with a dozen or so photos from the production. Considering the caliber of talent on display in this film, someone should have something to say about it.
Ironweed is an important adaptation of a classic novel, filled with excellent performances and a nice period setting. The film itself is easy to recommend to fans of alcoholic drama. This DVD, however, is a ridiculous slap in the face to consumers, even if it retails for less than ten dollars. If you have to see Ironweed then I would suggest renting this disc, but buying it will only encourage studios to release similar lackluster presentations in the future.
Ironweed is acquitted of all charges, while this DVD is guilty of a tragic inattention to audiovisual presentation.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 143 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery