MIA On R1 DVD #5: Reuben, Reuben

Reuben, Reuben (Robert Ellis Miller, 1983)


I took one acting class in college (I was terrible, I couldn’t quite bring myself to take it seriously). I recall working on a monologue from this for the class, but chickened out and went with Paul Newman’s courtroom summation from The Verdict. I loved the language of the Reuben, Reuben lines, but that was part of the problem – I loved them with Tom Conti’s Scots accent, and I loved them when said by an actor who had a hope in hell of pulling off the rather broad reversal in that film-ending monologue. I was definitely not that actor.

Tom Conti got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this. He lost to Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. Julius J. Epstein, writer on freaking Casablanca of all things, got a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. He lost to James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment. Which is to say that this film played with some fairly heady critical company 25 years ago, but is pretty thoroughly forgotten today.

Too bad. It’s a rather continuously entertaining account of one of those hard-drinking dead-broke Celtic poets that, at least in literature, were fond of romanticizing their self-destruction. Conti’s poet, Gowan McGland (don’t ask “who’s Reueben?”) is one of the more useless of his type – he’s lost whatever talent he might have had and finds himself in exurban America, wheedling free meals out of the local literary clubs and scamming on the middle-aged disaffected housewives, presenting himself as a foreign exotic.

This was Kelly McGillis’ film debut, as a local girl who might be Gowan’s last chance at getting out of his death spiral. This film, more than anything, probably earned her the chance to be Amish in Witness a couple years later.

As I said, it’s definitely entertaining – funny and wry – I well remember, at a dinner party scene, McGland rebuking the socialites gabbing about speed reading – how he instead would like to pay someone to teach him to read slower, so he could better savor his favorite books. This stuff works, but it does tend to undercut the attempts at seriousness and outright tragedy that await. Quibbles aside, I’ve been waiting a quarter-century for a decent home video version of this and consider it worth waiting for.

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