Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Blu-ray Review: The Acting and Directing Elevate the Writing

Robert Altman and his cast turn a second-tier script into something worth watching.
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Based upon a stage play of the same name this movie was written by the playwright (Ed Graczyk) and directed by Robert Altman (who also directed it on the stage).  It tells the story of six women who come together for a twenty-year reunion of a James Dean fan club inside an old Woolworths in a tiny town in Texas.  There they laugh, reminisce, open up old wounds, and reveal secrets long since buried.

The story itself is nothing special, old friends coming together to drudge up the past is pretty boilerplate storytelling, and the script adds nothing new.  The revelations are hardly revelatory and the shocks are tame from a modern point of view.  The dialogue is dull and often inauthentic.  The actresses give it some life and make it worth seeing.  As does Altman’s direction.

In the years since this film was made in 1982, Cher has proven herself to be a fine actress, but at the time she was only known as a singer and performer in her own variety shows.  She must have been a revelation in this.  She plays Sissy the town floozy or sexpot or whatever politically correct term we’d call that type nowadays.  She likes to have a good time and uses her body as access to what she sees as a better life.  But Cher plays her with a vulnerability, as a woman who is used to getting by on her good looks, but isn’t quite sure she’s actually that pretty.  It's a boisterous, yet subtle performance.

The rest of the main cast - Sandy Dennis as the dreadfully unhappy Mona who fantasizes about the life she could have had, Sudie Bond as the religious shop keep who’s still running the store, and Karen Black as Joanne the mysterious lady with a not-so-shocking past - all do marvelous jobs as well.  They elevate the rather cheap material they are given to make a pretty decent drama.

Kathy Bates deserves a mention as well.  This is one of her earliest roles and she’s not given much to do except be the raucous Kathy Bates character she’s played so many times since.  But she does well, though all the real drama is given to others.

The real reason to watch the film is Robert Altman.  His signature style is ready at hand.  There are lots of long takes and some overlapping dialogue (though not nearly as much as he uses in other films, probably because this started as a play).  There are a lot of flashback scenes in the film and he uses a very unique method to pull that off.  The entire film takes place inside the Woolworths and he built two replica sets with a two way mirror between them.  Using some complicated lighting setups the mirrors lose their reflection at certain points to reveal the actors on the other side playing out the flashbacks.  It's a fascinating choice and it works really well.

The Blu-ray transfer looks ok.  There weren’t any noticeable scratches or damages to the print, and grain was visible throughout.  It may be due to the more subdued palette but the colors never really pop and the blacks look fairly dull.  Likewise, the audio performance is serviceable.  It's a very dialogue-heavy film with very little in the way of a soundtrack or background noise. But I had no trouble understanding the dialogue. As someone who has a small child that has a tendency to either make lots of noise through films like this or be asleep, I really wish they had included subtitles. That’s a small but really lousy oversight for a Blu-ray release.  The only extra is a short interview with the playwright.

Ultimately, some good acting and really interesting directorial choices are able to elevate the second-rate writing to a film worth watching.  But just barely.

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