Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Harry & Tonto

Harry & Tonto; drama/ comedy/ road movie, USA, 1974; D: Paul Mazursky, S: Art Carney, Melanie Mayron, Herbert Berghof, Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Harry, a retired teacher, lives alone with his cat Tonto in a New York apartment. When he is evicted because the building is about to be torn down to make room for a parking lot, he finds a new home at his son, Burt. However, he cannot fit into his family life, and thus Harry takes a trip to his daughter Shirley in Chicago, taking Tonto with him. He meets numerous people along the way - teenager Ginger, salesman Wade, Indian Two Feathers... - and continues to Los Angeles since Shirley constantly argues with him. He meets his second son there, Eddie, but moves on because he is broke. When Tonto dies, Harry settles at a retirement home.

A wonderfully sincere and unassuming little comedy-drama, "Harry and Tonto" is one those 'slice-of-life' films done in the manner of Ashby and Capra that say a lot about humanity. The story is episodic and not always even, yet it has that freshness of sincere emotional melancholy-nostalgia whose intensity is rarely matched. Likewise, numerous humorous moments manage to ease the tone and prevent it from ever turning too melodramatic or pathetic - for instance, in one scene, a kid burglar has this exchange with Harry on the street: "Do you have any spare change?" - "Yes, but I cannot afford to spare any"; whereas Harry has a funny dialogue with Jacob: "When did you last time sleep with a woman?" - "Saturday night... (pause)...March... 1951..." Even though he was up against Pacino, Hoffman and Nicholson that year, Art Carney actually won the Oscar for best actor in this because his role was simply so genuine and honest it was irresisteble.

The underlying theme gives it weight: throughout the film, Harry never gets what he wants from life. He is content with his apartment, but is evicted from it. He was married to Annie, but it is implied the true love of his life was Jessie, whom he visits in the retirement home. He moves to his son's home, but feels like a burden and thus moves to his daughter Shirley, but she cannot stand him, either. He meets a nice 16-year old, Ginger - which culminates in a sweet scene where they share a hotel room during their journey - but she leaves him, as well. The only constant that is "just right" in his life, his only complete happiness, the only thing he can truly always rely on, is his cat Tonto, no matter how banal it is. And this is the message: to find something significant even in the small things in life. Tonto will never be a complete replacement for a real friend, but he will never disappoint him, either. Director Paul Matursky almost achieved a perfect ending which would have been heart-breaking - but in the last three scenes abandoned it and did something else, though. Still, almost reaching a perfect ending is not a small thing, either.


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