What is a "good script?" Or, mirror image, what is a "bad script?" Usually, when you hear someone say that a film has a bad script, what they really mean is that the film is derivative, that the dialog is poor, that there is no characterization, that it is predictable, that it fails to engage the viewers. Well, none of those things are true of Stanley and Iris, yet it has a bad script, or at least a fatally flawed one, and that's what makes it a fair film, rather than a good film.
Stanley and Iris deals with the relationship of two middle-aged working class people in a small Eastern city, certainly not a derivative situation. The dialog is true to character, sounds realistic, and even has a bit of poetry to it. The two principals are clearly defined, engaging characters, and some of the supporting roles aren't too badly drawn. While the major thrust of the story follows lines that many other films have followed, the path to the resolution is interesting and filled with nice twists. And, to some extent, at least, Stanley and Iris does make us care about the lives of its major characters.
Where the script fails is in dramatic construction. Writers Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch have failed to provide a clear, relevant sequence of events, each leading from one to the next, that tells a story. In Stanley and Iris, while succeeding scenes clearly have some dramatic connection to those that preceded, causality seems to be lacking. For example, we understand why, at one point, Stanley breaks off the relationship. And we see him begin it again. But why? The film shows us nothing that makes this change understandable. Perhaps we are meant to fill in the blanks by understanding the destiny of the plot. But the importance of these two people coming together is never great enough for the viewer to do that much of the work himself. If this were the only lapse, the film might not have seemed so choppy and arbitrary, but the whole movie is constructed that way.
Which is a pity, because Stanley and Iris is not a bad film. Director Martin Ritt stages each scene rather well. As is his way, he also provides a sense of authenticity to the setting. As in Sounder and Norma Rae, Ritt makes us believe in the people and the life they lead by not allowing false heroics or false tragedies, and by showing us generous slices of daily living that seem familiar, comfortable, and correct.
The photography is also good. It comes from a school of cinematography that prizes the beauty of realism, so there are no fancy camera moves, the lighting is naturalistic, and the shot selection is rather conservative, suiting the subject matter. But each shot is carefully considered and attractively lit, making the New England city considerably more attractive than it probably is in reality.
The main attraction of Stanley and Iris was always the casting of Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda in the title roles. Unfortunately, while each of them does good work in isolation, and while there is no great clash between their styles, they simply do not mesh on camera. Their love is told to us, but the performers fail to show it. De Niro has never been especially good at expressing a nice, comfortable form of love. Grand, destructive passion, yes, but pleasant romantic love, no. Fonda can, but it takes two to do this tango. That major failing aside, the performances are quite good. De Niro has made at least one acting breakthrough here. Unlike his character in Falling In Love, Stanley is a fairly normal person who is likable and not dull. Fonda manages to submerge most of her glamour and charisma in a role that demands a certain plainness of appearance and manner.
Other than these two, there are practically no important characters in the film. Martha Plimpton repeats her sullen, pregnant teenager role from Parenthood, with less material. (Actually, I believe Stanley and Iris was shot first, so perhaps she repeated the role in Parenthood, with more material.) Swoozie Kurtz has a few angry moments as Fonda's sister, but disappears totally from the latter half of the film. Feodor Chaliapan, memorable in Moonstruck, has some nice moments as De Niro's father.
Stanley and Iris has received some major critical dumpings, which I think weren't really justified. It doesn't work, but it's not a crime against cinema, either. It's a fairly entertaining 100 minutes or so with some good, professional work from all involved. Many critics seemed to have seized upon small points as a basis of their dislike of Stanley and Iris, such as stating that Jane Fonda's body was too shapely for the part, or that Stanley's background made his problems seem unlikely. But I think that these little flaws are no more than symptoms of the overall failure of the script to construct a logical, dramatic story. If the pieces had all fallen into place one by one, as they do in a good dramatic film, no one would have objected to the small stuff. As it is, Stanley and Iris is a well-intentioned film that can provide some pleasures, with only slight disappointment based on the potentials of all the talents involved.
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