Monday, October 1, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Absence of Malice

Pollack described how he came to make Absence of Malice as a “screenplay my agents gave me; it’s as simple as that.” This kind of rare, personal detachment from the project is evident throughout the film and makes for one of the most painful viewing experiences of Pollack’s oeuvre. Oh, not because the movie is bad or even boring, there’s just something missing here (I think it’s primarily conviction and energy in its subject matter) that makes it quite the lacking experience when held up to other famous procedural films. But it’s also lacking in the conviction found in almost all of Pollack’s previous films. In Jeremiah Johnson, The Yakuza, and Bobby Deerfield, that personal attachment is evident as Pollack often stated that those films were a labor of love. Here, Pollack may have thought Absence of Malice was a good film – the commercial success of the film makes a case that something worked in the movie – but there’s also a sense that the film was a stopgap for Pollack before he begin production on his two most critically successful films that rounded out the ‘80s, Tootsie and Out of Africa.

The story – which comes in the wake of the disillusioned ‘70s procedurals like All the President’s Men and Pollack’s own Three Days of the Condor -- concerns Miami liquor wholesaler Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) and the investigation surrounding his alleged involvement in the disappearance and murder of a local longshoreman union official. As Gallagher investigates why he’s being considered a suspect, he walks into the Miami Standard – the paper that initially ran a story about his involvement citing numerous anonymous sources – and asks the reporter, Megan Carter (Sally Field), just what in the hell is going on here. In addition to Gallagher and Carter being primary characters, there is also federal prosecutor Elliot Rosen (the always great Bob Balaban) who is trying to play Carter in hopes that she’ll be able to get some more information from Gallagher. Gallagher pressures Carter to reveal the sources in her story, but she refuses in the name of integrity.

Soon, Gallagher’s world begins to fall apart as his business is shut down by union officials who are suspicious of him because of the story that was printed implicating him in Diaz’s murder; in addition, his lifelong friend (Melinda Dillon) – who has told Carter that Gallagher couldn’t have killed Diaz because he was out of town taking her to get an abortion that weekend. However, because his friend is a devout Catholic, she doesn’t want the story to get out, so she refuses to go on the record.  Then the story gets a little convoluted as Carter informs Gallagher that his friend has committed suicide and that Rosen has been the one pulling the strings. This is followed by a nonsensical subplot where Gallagher and Carter start up a love affair and hatch a plan for revenge with all kinds of secret meetings and other goings-on that force Carter to sacrifice her journalistic integrity.

There’s something there in Absence of Malice – something that is in a lot of procedurals – and it’s really the only thing that keeps the film watchable: the performances. The film metes out information little by little, but unfortunately it just isn’t interesting at all; however, the performances make the situations palpable enough, and if it weren’t for Newman and the rest of the supporting cast (especially Balaban and Wilford Brimley), then Absence of Malice would be an utter bore.

The film is efficient and professional (two things one always expects from Pollack), but as I mentioned earlier, there’s no heart. I never really cared that the story caused a huge uproar, I wasn’t invested in Gallagher’s life enough to feel empathy towards his losses, I could have care less about Sally Field’s reporter (mostly because I can’t stand Field as an actress), and when the whole thing finally ends up in a deposition with US Assistant Attorney General (Brimley) badgering Carter about her story – and how she fudged her ethics but doesn’t care because the bigger issue is that Rosen illegally leaked information – I could admire the film’s performances but little else. And one of the main reasons for that is how everything not involving Gallagher’s revenge plan felt so shoe-horned that there was never a chance to get invested in it.

There’s still the typical polarization of lead characters from Pollack – opposing world views that is represented by a love affair; here, laughably out of place and forced – and a quicker pace that is more akin to Condor than his previous films Bobby Deerfield and The Electric Horseman.  At this point though, the forced romance shouldn’t really bother me because I know that Pollack is going to throw a romantic subplot in his films. As we’ve discussed in every one of these retrospective reviews, he has to have it. Normally I don’t mind when the romance involves two great leads like Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (as I mentioned last week in my The Electric Horseman review), but here Fields and Newman are just all kinds of wrong together. For the first time in his career, he doesn’t get great performances out of his leads because of this. Sure Fields and Newman are professional and big time stars, but when they’re on screen together, it’s pretty damn dull.

Newman is Newman: he’s awesomely smooth and just exudes big time movie star/leading man presence, and, yes, I don’t like Field, but it’s not all her fault that whenever Newman is on screen with her, he just kind of sits there having all of the charisma sucked from him. Pulling off this screenplay would be an impressive fete for any actress; unfortunately, Field is just way out of her league here. Even though this isn’t one of Newman’s best or most memorable performances, he’s more than watchable here and keeps things interesting enough that if you happen upon the film on cable, it’ll keep you busy for a while before you realize that what you’re watching it pretty shallow.  One thing, though, that is noticeable in the film is Pollack’s continued success in directing larger casts with great supporting performances. Here, I’m specifically thinking of Balaban and Brimley, and it’s a nice precursor to some of his later work where he would fill out his films with these great character actors (I’m specifically thinking of The Firm, here).

So, Pollack’s skill of working with big time stars may not be completely on display here since he fails to get a good performance out of Field, but his skill working with actors is still something to take notice of.  There’s nothing particularly deep or interesting about Absence of Malice – and nothing is especially significant to Pollack – but there’s enough here to be mildly entertained. You can never go wrong with Paul Newman, there’s a great supporting cast, and it’s efficiently paced; however, it’s just kind of there – a post-‘70s disillusioned narrative that lacks conviction or energy, and it certainly is not as endearing or entertaining considering the films came before (The Electric Horseman) and after (Tootsie) this one. In the grand scheme of procedurals, Absence of Malice falls well behind the likes of All the President’s Men, The Insider, JFK, and Zodiac; lofty competition, no doubt, but it is what it is. Things would get much, much better for Pollack during the rest of the ‘80s.


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