Friday, April 10, 2020

The Capacity To Recover

Maybe we can never fully escape the world we come from. Our parents are our parents, our siblings are the ones we can never impress, the dreams we have sometimes turn into memories of places we never want to return to. And deep down we have a better idea of who we are than we want to admit. Directed by Mike Nichols, REGARDNG HENRY was released during the summer of 1991, less than a month after the 25th birthday of its screenwriter Jeffrey Abrams, now better known to everyone as J.J. Abrams so this is an easy reminder of just how young that guy has always been. And this isn’t even his first screen credit which was the previous year’s TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS co-written with Jill Mazursky and directed by Arthur Hiller for anybody with memories of watching that one a hundred times on cable. By this point plenty of us have our opinions on the work of J.J. Abrams whether strong feelings about his STAR WARS films or even the second season of FELICITY. The slightly forgotten REGARDING HENRY (which, as a fun fact, opened the same day as POINT BREAK) hasn’t been examined quite as much but it makes sense to look at it now as a reminder of where his career path began and maybe what his point of view of the world has always been. In some ways it’s a starter screenplay, one that comes off as basic as possible while still being complete and ready to shoot to make itself an actual film. But even those are never easy. Not even as easy as getting away from the places that made us.

Manhattan lawyer Henry Turner (Harrison Ford) is successful and respected at the powerful firm where he works but cold and unfriendly to everyone in his life, even to wife Sarah (Annette Bening) and daughter Rachel (Mikki Allen). He’s seemingly willing to do anything to get ahead in his career and the society life, more interested in the big case he’s just won than anything else. But late one night Henry goes out to grab a pack of cigarettes when he stumbles on a holdup and is shot in the head by the gunman. He surprisingly recovers but along with a secondary wound that resulted in a lack of oxygen to the brain he has essentially no memory of the person he once was. After a long recovery process aided by physical therapist Bradley (Bill Nunn), Henry gets well enough to return home, getting to know his wife and daughter anew. He also goes back to work at his firm but is soon confronted with the sort of lawyer he was as well as the sort of person he was and is forced to come to grips with figuring out what sort of person he’s going to be now.

The austerity of Mike Nichols’ early films became a considerably more casual style through the 80s and one of the surprises of looking at REGARDING HENRY for the first time in years is that to a certain extent this represents a sort of return to that approach, even if the ultimate effect leads to a different place. That intent is apparent right from the start with the credits rolling on a long look at the courthouse on Centre Street in lower Manhattan over a cold grey afternoon with snow falling, perfect for the harsh world the main character is so successful in. The following extended shot introduces Ford’s Henry Turner in what is close to a full 360 as he gives the closing argument in the big case he’s about to win and knows how to win. His slicked back hair and expensive suit blend seamlessly into the background of that courtroom, inherently part of the world he occupies just like his briefly mentioned father was. The first dozen or so shots of the film spread out over the first six minutes set up this very particular visual approach aided by the great Giuseppe Rotunno as cinematographer (who also shot CARNAL KNOWLEDGE for Nichols, among many other films) which gives REGARDING HENRY what complexity it has since this is at heart a simple film in all sorts of ways, simple in plot and structure as well as how it plays out to the point it almost feels like there’s next to no drama at all. Henry is a cold, selfish prick who only cares about himself, then he’s not and everyone is either ok with that or they’re not. As a screenplay it’s a fairly straightforward telling of the story with few diversions of any kind but as a film Nichols turns it into an exploration of how we can relate to the world we occupy, how much we ever actually belong there and how much of that decision is really up to you.

It’s the burnished wood signifying wealth that seems to make up the recurring color palette of each of these courtrooms and restaurants, a signpost of the tradition all around them with the lack of color infusing how these people really feel about anything that isn’t money. The mammoth apartment where Henry lives with his family is located in a building recognizable from being prominently featured in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (“Remember Don Ameche, the actor? He lives here.”) but it also has no real color, an overly decorative dining room table that Henry hates, all contrasted with the endless green lawn of the rehab facility that gives him life again. The short, clipped scenes that detail much of this gives a no muss, no fuss feel to the storytelling so edited by Sam O’Steen there’s not an ounce of fat on the film as if nearly every moment is seemingly about getting the correct amount of plot and thematic information into a scene but maybe not much more than that, to simply follow Henry through his recovery as he tries to figure out just who he is. He definitely becomes friendlier with a newly floppy haired look to underline his innocence—some scenes aren’t too far removed from Harrison Ford playing a kid in a body switching movie—but it’s not all that interesting and when Henry gets an empty frame as a gift it’s a reminder, maybe a little too obvious, of the blank slate he is. One brief moment of some society types scarfing down spoonfuls of caviar at a party feels a little too broad to make the point (just like much of the extravagant wardrobe of Robin Bartlett as Sarah’s best friend) and such undisciplined moments feel like a broadly satirical indulgence out of step with the tone but it also feels like there’s an energy to it which at least gives some life to the scene that too much of the rest of the film is doing without.

The question of how medically accurate what happens to Henry is could be argued but it doesn’t even really matter since this is all mostly about the symbolism of that scar on his forehead so the whole movie plays as not a story of recovery but a signpost for moving from the cruelty of the Reagan 80s to what was going to be the calmer, gentler 90s. Bill Nunn infuses the stock type of his physical therapist of color with an undeniable sincerity but it’s still hard not to think of it as the stock type it is, dispensing the right sort of wisdom at just the right time. Between that and the lessons Henry learns from his helpful daughter it’s as if the wisdom he receives from these people is more important than anything his actual doctors ever did and briefly musing over what he became in life thanks to his father it feels like the message is that getting shot in the head was the best thing to ever happen to him. Through the arc of the film he basically goes from being a child, baking cookies with his daughter--the bit where he suggests making ‘one big cookie’ is cute--to essentially being forced into maturity when confronted about the truth of what his life was and how to decide which path he’s going to take, a reminder of other films from the time about a workaholic husband/dad who learns what really matters (it’s better than HOOK, I’ll give it that much). It makes me wonder how much importance the concept of intellect actually has in the work of J.J. Abrams or if it’s all just about good fortune and luck, to do the right thing with the birthright you received whether James Kirk in STAR TREK’09 (a film I still like, but that’s a discussion for another time) wrestling with the legacy of his father, Sydney Bristow and the mystery of her mother on ALIAS, all of which pointing towards the reasons for what ultimately makes the lead character so special in their world.

On the Mike Nichols side of things, some of the films that he made during the second half of his career including HEARTBURN and WORKING GIRL all have a genuine sense of living in New York and the east coast stratosphere but in the case of REGARDING HENRY it also feels like a film made by people with an undeniable self-loathing for that world, filled with society types forever wandering the streets of Manhattan clutching the Playbills of the Broadway show they just saw heading off to dinner. All this makes it feel like little more than the product of someone who comes from privilege whether that someone is Nichols or Abrams or a little of both, wrestling with that privilege and the thought of turning their back on it. Looking at it now, the film has a surprising similarity to WOLF, Mike Nichols’ next film released a few years later and at least a more interesting one, also featuring a middle-aged man going through a transformation that improves his life after an unexpected encounter late one night. WOLF now plays like a film more about acknowledging the cruelty and where the world was clearly headed, so the creature Jack Nicholson turns into in that film is the only way to fight back against it. REGARDING HENRY, clearly the more benign version of this concept, merely serves up what happens unquestionably and with kindness.

The elemental quality of Nichols’ direction means there’s that smooth sense of professionalism which makes it clear that he knows what each scene has to be about and what to focus on in any given moment. At other times he lets those moments relax and play out in a single shot to let the actors fully relate to each other but the problem is too often the scenes in question aren’t about very much. When Henry disappears to wander around New York, winding up in a porno theater at one point, nothing bad happens and he even buys a cute dog. The real drama which emerges when Henry’s daughter goes away after becoming his big human connection from his old life at first then she’s removed as the maturity comes into play all feels like it’s all easily resolved after Henry skulks around the city for a few minutes looking serious. It would be a little harsh to say that it becomes as empty as Henry’s head with what may be the most low-key Hans Zimmer score of all time to inch the scenes forward but maybe this makes the collaboration an ideal combo: a director who seemingly approaches everything from a standpoint of intellect with a writer who’s all about instinct and what happens in the moment, never thinking too far into the future.

It strikes me that a movie which explored the ambivalence of never being able to fully unlock the mystery of who Henry used to be sounds like a much more interesting one, just not as heartwarming so maybe the answer is as much of a void as that empty frame and isn’t particularly fleshed out for a reason. Even the issue of Henry’s father who apparently believed life was all about the ‘work ethic’, which is mentioned at the start and brought up again later, never becomes a touchstone of all the answers like it seems it will. And aside from a few clever foreshadowing touches in the script that stand out on repeat viewings, like the Rosebud of the word ‘Ritz’ that Henry initially responds to as well as the key piece of evidence he withheld in the big trial, there’s not much to uncover and instead it wants to be a warm blanket of a movie that never says very much of substance. Along with a few cozy expressions to help Henry out such as, “When you have enough, you say ‘When’” the overall feeling of niceness is what makes up both the text and the subtext with nothing else to read into it. The best of Mike Nichols generally offers some degree of ambiguity whether the endings of THE GRADUATE or WORKING GIRL all the way to his final film CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR and without that feeling of wondering what’s being left behind, REGARDNG HENRY doesn’t have much of anything beyond the fuzziness. At the very end the credits just roll when they’re more or less supposed to, no real crescendo given to the final moment so it’s all more of a pleasant feeling than an actual movie.

Even Harrison Ford’s crooked smile makes an appearance as Henry comes to life again and that long stretch with no dialogue gives us a look at what he can do without it, almost making him vulnerable like never before. It’s the most interesting part of his performance which by its nature feels like we’re missing a key ‘Harrison Ford’ element even if it does manage to find a balance between the adult and the little boy, playing as slightly endearing but still a little calculated. This film also comes in the middle of Annette Bening’s 1991 run, falling between GUILTY BY SUSPICION and BUGSY, and she’s terrific here bringing an undeniable strength which helps to make sense of a role where it doesn’t feel like the script has given her all the answers. Mikki Allen, who has no other screen credits, brings a totally believable sadness as their daughter but it never feels overdone, playing as totally believable as she tries to connect with her father. Bill Nunn offers a valuable directness in his scenes which gives them a focus as pat as they are and it is, in fairness, an excellent supporting cast with what feels like familiar New York theater faces or maybe just friends of Nichols meant to fill out that world including Donald Moffat, Rebecca Miller, Bruce Altman, James Rebhorn, Robin Bartlett and Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s mother in THE GRADUATE). John Leguizamo is the liquor store gunman, Abrams himself cameos as a delivery boy and an unbilled Nancy Marchand gets almost the last line of dialogue.

Thinking back to when this film came out, I remember seeing it with my father who at the time was right in the middle of some of his own extensive health issues so because of that memory you’d think the film would have more pull for me now but not really and I can’t even remember what he had to say about it. There’s not really a lot to chew on here. As an honest admission, when I first had the idea several months ago to write about this film (it won out over TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS, primarily because of Mike Nichols) it was in the immediate wake of Abrams’ THE RISE OF SKYWALKER which made me think to connect the overall poorness of that film to the simplistic ideals of this one. And, in a way, Daisy Ridley’s Rey comes to the same conclusion at the end of her film that Henry Turner does in his, to reject where she comes from and find another way to move forward. All this may be valid and it’s a little hard not to look at Abrams’ work in film & TV and think that his view of the world has never been about intellect but the sheer luck of what you’re born into, what you supposedly have coming to you as destiny. Of course, a lot has happened since I had that idea and spending much time thinking about the J.J. Abrams STAR WARS films doesn’t interest me very much at the moment. As for REGARDING HENRY, I’m not in too much of a mood to strongly object to what is ultimately a ‘nice’ movie with a message of, ‘Be who you are deep down and don’t let anyone else tell you what that is’ but there’s still not very much to say about it. The question for us right now is what are we going to be in this world that we have to live in? That’s an answer we don’t have yet. We’re trapped here, after all. And, at the moment, there’s nothing we can do to escape.


Larry Aydlette said...

Thoughtful review, Peter. I've avoided this one for awhile, might stay that way.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks Larry! And I won't try to talk you into it.