For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, May 8, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: Making its belated DVD/Blu-ray debut on the Olive label this week is the Paul Newman flick “Harry & Son” (PG), not a great movie but one that fans have been watching for. And get a load of the supporting players, a laundry list of future stars. Here’s my March 3, 1984, Deseret News review.

Paul Newman is the drawing card for “Harry & Son,” a look at the blue-collar working class, the woes of unemployment and the tenuous relationship between a father and son. But the lead role is really Robby Benson’s.

Oh, Newman has a major part as the “Harry” of the title, and certainly his character is integral to the overall point of this film, but the focus is on Benson as Newman’s son, an aspiring writer whose father doesn’t understand why the lad won’t use his college education to begin a career, rather than just sit around pounding on a typewriter.

As co-writer, co-producer, director and star of “Harry & Son,” Newman obviously is nurturing a pet project here. And as director, Newman has proven himself in the past with some very good films. But for some reason this one never really catches fire or becomes involving. There’s a constant distance between the intended emotions and the audience, despite a number of very good performances by the extremely talented cast.

Under the credits, the film opens with Newman on a construction crew, using a wrecking ball to tear down a building, an obvious metaphor for Harry’s own crumbling life and destructive attitude. Cut to Howard (Benson), working at his car wash job, then heading out to the beach for some surfing.

Widowed Harry and his son Howard live alone together in a small house in the middle of a warehouse district, and it gradually becomes clear that the idea here is for Howard to be a likable kid, but without any real sense of where he’s going, and for Harry to be an irascible father, but with no real sense of how to guide his son. Hence, they argue and fight, until Harry finally comes to the realization that Howard does know what’s best for himself, after all.


Clockwise from top left, Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Joanne Woodward, 'Harry & Son'

The relationship is oddly handled. Harry often comes of as unnecessarily cruel, rather than misguided. Howard seems aimless and occasionally downright dumb, rather than merely having a strong, obsessive devotion to his writing.

Better are the supporting characters, and the actors who play them. Joanne Woodward is wonderful as a loopy phrenologist who operates a pet store, and Ellen Barkin is equally good as her pregnant daughter who once went steady with Howard. And in three brief scenes, Wilford Brimley is also very good as Newman’s brother.

Though his character is an odd one that seems overly contrived, Ossie Davis as a victim of unemployment who gets a good job through Benson, gives a solid performance in a very brief role, and Morgan Freeman registers strongly in an even smaller part, as an exasperated line boss. And as Newman’s daughter and son-in-law, Katherine Borowitz and Maury Chaykin are also effective. I was less taken with Judith Ivey, a good actress saddled with a ridiculous role as an office seductress.


Neither of the lead actors, Benson and Newman, seems very well suited to his role, and that’s probably the main problem here. Their characters are never very consistent when they are onscreen together, though Benson works very well with Barkin, and Newman is better with Woodward and Brimley. There is also a problematic lack of logic, with some of the plot twists making no sense whatsoever (especially Newman’s being laid off from his job with a medical pension, despite his never seeing a doctor).

And though hardly new, the ideas and the overall message here are very good, and there is a fine sense of how to use a subplot, something a lot of modern films seem to avoid.

Rated PG for profanity, some sex talk and brief partial nudity, “Harry & Son” is a disappointment but not a total failure. There are some very nice moments here, and enough wonderful supporting roles to make it worthwhile in some measure.