Judge Gordon Sullivan says Bobby Deerfield would flop as a video game, just like it does as a movie.
He had to meet her—to find himself!
I love Al Pacino's work. From the emotional subtlety of Dog Day Afternoon to the overblown theatrics of The Devil's Advocate, he's always impressed me. He does so again in Bobby Deerfield, but nothing else in the film does.
Facts of the Case
Bobby Deerfield (Al Pacino, The Godfather) is a race car driver whose life seems rather staid. At least it is until he encounters Lillian Morelli (Marthe Keller, Marathon Man), a woman who fascinates him with her carefree attitude. However, her carefree attitude disguises the fact that she's terminally ill. She tries to teach Bobby about enjoy life before she loses her own.
Our culture has a fascination with what the dead or dying can tell us about our lives. Whether it's Sweet November, in which a cancer patient teaches a man to love life, or a film like Flatliners where the dead have lessons to give us, the carpe diem storyline is easy and offers a solid frame on which to hang an emotional story. Of course there is the ever-present danger of falling into false sentimentality, robbing the story of any substantial emotional weight. Bobby Deerfield desperately wants to harness the emotional power of the terminal illness story, but never really gets off the ground.
On the surface, Bobby Deerfield should work. Take a conservative daredevil, throw in a quirky-but-charming love interest, add a hefty pinch of tragedy, and you should get cinematic gold. Instead, what we actually get is cinematic pyrite. The main problem is that the film lacks a definite plot until 30 minutes in. Before that, we're thrust into Bobby's world, where he's having a crisis over the death of a teammate. To work through this difficulty, he drives around, looking sullen. These parts of the film are boring. There's nothing about Bobby that makes us want to engage with him and his difficulties. It's very hard to sympathize with a rich guy quietly going through a midlife style crisis. When he finally meets Lillian, the two of them do a cat-and-mouse relationship dance which could be interesting, except she's obnoxious and he's clueless. The film finally picks up when we discover why she's so carefree. Bobby has his life-changing moment, and for the rest of the film (excepting the final scenes) they jaunt merrily around. However, these later interactions are charged with our knowledge of Lillian's future, giving them purpose and weight. Really, though, by the time their characters were revealed enough to be interesting, I was too disinterested to care.
It's not all bad, however. This film, more than most I've seen, had a number of "real" moments. These were moments that didn't seem like acting at all, but sounded like they'd been plucked from actual conversations. Those scenes were fascinating to watch. Sadly, they don't really move the story along because real doesn't always equal interesting. In fact, those moments generally slowed the film, bogging down its already glacial pace.
With that said, Bobby Deerfield is a film about two people, so good acting is crucial. Pacino turns in a fine performance as Bobby, but one that ultimately doesn't serve the film. His portrayal is so subtle, so reserved, that it's difficult to really sympathize with or care about his character. He gets by on brooding for the first hour and a half, which is just too long. The few times he blows up, revealing the tip of the grandstanding iceberg he showed so well in …And Justice for All, are also the times when his character is most clueless. When Lillian's fate is revealed, both actor and character loosen up, making for a much more enjoyable viewing experience, even if it might be too little, too late. Marthe Keller acts as Pacino's evil twin, loud and expressive where he is quiet and reserved. I can see how the character could be compelling, but Keller hits shrill early on and stays there for most of the film. She wants to be a Zen master, distributing life lessons and bon mots, but she comes off as a coked-up kook who's read too many self-help books. She has a few interesting moments here and there, but overall her performance just failed to engage.
Sony gives us Bobby Deerfield from a fairly clean print. The film absolutely shows its late-'70s vintage, but the age is never distracting. It looks a little flat to my eyes, but I suspect that has more to do with the cinematography than the DVD. The audio does a fine job of capturing dialogue and music. A word about the music: easily one of the worst pairings of film and score I can recall. It sounds like they ran out of money and went for the cheapest library music they could find. More than once it pulled me out of the film with its cheesiness. But, that's the fault of the filmmakers, and not this DVD. I would have loved some extras that gave some context to the film, but there's nothing related to Bobby Deerfield on this disc. Instead, Sony gives us a 10-minute preview of the new Pacino movie 88 Minutes. Personally, I avoided watching it because I know the film is a thriller, and I didn't want them to spoil anything. There are also some trailers for other Sony films, but none for the feature. I understand the necessity for tie-ins, but this DVD has a particularly tossed-off feel.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Maybe I missed something. Perhaps someone out there will find this film riveting. If you absolutely must have your daily dose of carpe diem and all the better choices are rented out, then Bobby Deerfield will do the trick, barely.
Don't let the cover (or the action-movie montage that opens the discs) fool you: Bobby Deerfield is not a Fast Company or Days of Thunder. It's a strangely underplayed and overblown melodrama about one man's life-changing encounter with a woman. Parts of it are well-crafted, but overall there's little to recommend to anyone but hardcore fans of Pacino.
Bobby Deerfield is found guilty of boring the court and is hereby sentenced to do a thousand laps around the nearest racetrack.
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