Don't bury me just yet
There's a very strong undercurrent of The Graduate in this movie. It even seems like they played up a slight resemblance in David Schwimmer to the young Dustin Hoffman. I was picking up on this before we were really into the film itself, and then the similarities kept shining through.
Schwimmer is Tom, our no-longer-a-boy, not-quite-a-man protagonist, and the reason he ends up a pallbearer is that Bill Abernathy = someone Tom went to high school with - commits suicide, and he is called on by the mother, as her son's friend, to perform the duty - though he doesn't remember the guy at all, and feels guilty for that fact.
Meanwhile, another person from school, Julie (Gwyneth Paltrow) is back in town, and Tom finds his unexpressed teenage feelings for her still in place. She, however, rebuffs him for her own reasons.
In that context, when Mrs. Abernathy, or as we get to know her, Ruth, calls Tom over. It seems her son left some things for him - which, as it turns out, includes his car. While visiting, the distraught Ruth manages not so much to seduce Tom, but still not exactly allow him to seduce her. It's more of a mutual desperation that comes out at that moment, but as movie moves forward, Mrs. Abernathy comes off as a less balanced Mrs. Robinson. After this point, Tom finds himself regularly in Ruth's bed, as well as her social adjunct.
And when an ultimately meaningless incident throws Julie and a more relaxed Tom into more than a token friendship, Tom finds himself walking a line of keeping the truth of Ruth from both Julie, and his mother, with whom he still lives. We have the basic love triangle of The Graduate here, only lacking the mother-daughter relationship.
This is the point where I start cringing. Not another damn predictable idiot plot that's going to end in a self-gratifying spectacle of yelling and throwing things. To the movie's credit, the plot is executed with restraint and ends up giving us something more to think about.
And this leads me to my own conundrum about the film, vis-a-vis The Graduate (wait - did I just write "vis-a-vis"? ah well, I'll just let that one go). You see, the Pallbearer gets into much more interesting material, and is deeper in scope than the Graduate. Yet, that highly revered film is much better in execution as a self-contained whole, perhaps aided by its relative simplicity. I ask myself the question of whether it was a mistake to have borrowed the Graduate mold rather than strike its own path. But I like the homage in general - aside from playing up Mrs. Abernathy's potential hystrionics, it's a subtle and effective device. No, the thing that bothers me is that we're setup as a black comedy, but never quite achieving the balance on the comedy side. The material is good enough and suffers - just a bit - from a slightly unbalanced script. Another revision, or some judicious editing, could have made this one a very good movie.
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