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  Reuben, Reuben Tragically Ludicrous
Year: 1983
Director: Robert Ellis Miller
Stars: Tom Conti, Kelly McGillis, Roberts Blossom, Cynthia Harris, E. Katherine Kerr, Joel Fabiani, Kara Wilson, Lois Smith, Ed Grady, Damon Douglas, Rex Robbins, Jack Davidson, Angus MacLachlan
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Gowan McGland (Tom Conti) is a Scottish poet who is finding life something of a burden since his inspiration evaporated about five years ago. Now he is reduced to performing readings of his work to groups of adoring middle-aged women and bored college students, doing his best to take away the pain by sleeping with as many of his female fans as possible and drinking himself into a stupor. At the moment he is living in New England where his readings have gone down well, and his list of conquests has grown - but what if McGland were to actually fall in love, would that make him a changed man?

Here's a film that was nominated for Oscars and other awards on its release, was critically acclaimed in many quarters, made a big impression on a sizeable amount of those who went to see it, but now is almost entirely forgotten. That's a great pity, as even if its mixture of painful humour and wince-making drama didn't float your boat, there was a brilliant performance at its heart from Tom Conti (one of those Oscar-nominated), bringing out the character's humour, nobility and frankly, his downright wretchedness. This was adapted from a novel by Peter De Vries by Julius J. Epstein, who took it upon himself to blend in parts of a play by Herman Shumlin to beef it up.

Some were sniffy about Epstein's choices there, and less than convinced that McGland would have made it as much of a poet anyway based on what we hear, but they are missing the point, which is that no matter the quality of the fictional writer's work, we can recognise that he has the soul of an artist, and that is not necessarily a pleasant place to be. He is a pathetic, shambling wreck of a man blessed with enormous amounts of intelligence and charm which he manages to bury under the effects of his failure and his alcoholism; if it were not for many genuinely funny lines offered him and Conti's mastery of the man's roguish personality we would find it hard to sit through a scene with him, never mind a whole movie.

Irony looms large, as whenever McGland takes one step forward, he is forced back another two paces. His estranged wife Edith (Kara Wilson, Conti's wife in real life) is going to make herself very well off by penning his biography while he cannot bring himself to write even a line or two to generate much-needed cash; among his less admirable habits is stealing tips from restaurant tables, so he is permanently in need of financial assistance, and it's barely the goodwill he brings out in others from respect for his past work that helps him get by. In the meantime, although he is his own worst enemy, it appears fate itself is conspiring against him, from the smaller incidents such as getting beaten up in a bar for calling some meathead a heterosexual, to his significant meeting on a train.

That train sequence is one of the funniest in the film, where a very drunk McGland is slumped in his seat with a glass of whisky he has liberated from the last tavern he visited, and predictably cannot find his ticket when the inspector comes around. This attracts the attention of one of his fellow passengers, college student Geneva (Kelly McGillis in her debut), who pays for his journey, yet after we have been laughing at his antics, he wanders off to the toilet and breaks down in tears, feeling humiliated for the umpteenth time. Here is the uncomfortable balancing act that Conti, Epstein and their very capable director Robert Ellis Miller, who is sensitive to every character's emotions, walk and you can see why many would be turned off by this combination of tone.

It turns out that Geneva is the granddaughter of an elderly gent, Frank Spofford (Roberts Blossom), who lives in the house near to McGland's current residence, and against the odds, she is who the poet falls in love with as he fools himself into believing that this could work out. It's a bittersweet romance that never really convinces you that this couple are right for each other, and inevitably it ends in upset. What you take away from this is the way that life cuts you down to size no matter what your ambitions or pretensions, and McGland more than most, as in spite of how flowery his speech gets, how deeply felt his reactions are, the fact remains he is a wastrel of the lowest order. But you do like him, you like him a lot. Reuben is Geneva's pet dog, and if you want to find out why the film is named after him you have to wait for the excruciatingly hilarious ending. Music by Billy Goldenberg.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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