Stanley And Iris

1990, Movie, PG-13, 104 mins

Review

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STANLEY AND IRIS takes place in a small industrial town in New England. Iris King (Jane Fonda), a working-class mother of two, is riding home on the bus when her purse is stolen. After unsuccessfully attempting to recover the purse, she meets Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), who offers to walk her home. Stanley and Iris discover that they work at the same large bakery (she on the production line, he in the canteen) and strike up a friendship. Times are tough for both of them. Eight months a widow, Iris still grieves for her husband, but that is hardly the extent of her troubles. Her teenage daughter Kelly (Martha Plimpton) is pregnant, and her unemployed sister, Sharon (Swoosie Kurtz), and Sharon's contentious husband, Joe (Jamey Sheridan), have taken up residence in Iris' home. For his part, Stanley devotedly cares for his 89-year-old father, Leonides (Feodor Chaliapin), and is determined to work hard and honestly to keep him happy. However, there is one problem: Stanley can't read or write. Iris discovers Stanley's handicap when she goes to the canteen one day in search of aspirin. Looking into a medicine cabinet stocked with dozens of bottles he can't read, Stanley hands Iris the wrong bottles one by one. Recognizing Stanley's problem, Iris tells his boss, who responds by firing Stanley ("You can't tell sugar from roach powder...you're dangerous," says his boss). Matters only get worse for Stanley and Iris, as she tries in vain to keep her family together, while he is forced to put his father in a home. When Leonides dies, Stanley finally asks Iris to teach him to read, and slowly they begin to build a strong friendship. After several triumphs (like writing the word "bird") and failures (like not being able to read directions and find his way home), Stanley succeeds in overcoming his problem, eventually securing a patent for a machine he has invented that cools hot pastry. In the process, Iris stops grieving over her husband and finds love again. What's more, Kelly has a baby girl, whom she names after Iris. After moving to Detroit and finding success there, Stanley returns to New England for Iris and her family. As they prepare to go to the Motor City as husband and wife, Iris asks Stanley if he thinks he can handle the problems of her family, to which Stanley replies, "Anything is possible."

STANLEY AND IRIS is a difficult film to assess, since it deals sincerely with a serious subject yet disturbingly oversimplifies the real and complicated issue of illiteracy. Husband-and-wife screenwriting team Harriet Frank, Jr., and Irving Ravetch (who cowrote NORMA RAE) have crammed their story with a number of shallow melodramatic subplots (Plimpton's pregnancy, Chaliapin's death, etc.) and have dealt with illiteracy in the same superficial manner. Regrettably, Martin Ritt's bland, uninvolving direction doesn't help matters, leaving the actors alone to struggle with the inanities of the script. Supporting characters wander through the film with little apparent purpose (Kurtz and Sheridan are particularly wasted), and there are several moments of surprising heavy-handedness (like Plimpton's appearance on the production line after having quit school). Also working against the film's success is an uninvolving "single-mother-raising-her-kids" subplot that is filled with all of the wrong cliches (similar ground is covered much more skillfully in Paul Brickman's masterful MEN DON'T LEAVE). Unfolding in a choppy style, the film's main plot also never becomes compelling, despite noble attempts by the actors.

Fonda gives a steady performance as Iris, and though it's hard to believe she has ever seen the inside of a factory, she has some nice moments. De Niro is much better. His quirky but natural mannerisms are a joy to watch, and as always it's difficult to take your eyes off of him (especially during his wonderful drunk scene, and the library scene in which he demonstrates his newfound reading ability.) But even De Niro's brilliant performance isn't enough to save what is essentially a soap opera with high aspirations.

While some of the sloppy filmmaking can be forgiven, the film's core message cannot. If you cannot read you are a non-person, the film tells us. And if you learn how to read (which is a surprisingly simple task in this movie) your reward is lots of money!--all of which is a little misleading to say the least. It might have worked better by concentrating more on its eponymous main characters and less on the countless subplots. Over the years Ritt has demonstrated a sensitivity to the problems of the American working class in films like NORMA RAE and CONRACK, but by employing illiteracy as a cheap form of audience manipulation (and having all the rewards for his protagonist's struggle be monetary), the director shows that he has definitely lost touch. (Profanity, adult situations, substance abuse.) leave a comment

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