Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Heart of the Madder: "American Heart" (1993)

This film has an excellent cast rising above some lackluster material you have seen before in other "angry ex-con" driven stories.

Jack (Jeff Bridges) is a recently released convict who tries to dump his fifteen year old son Nick (Edward Furlong) in the very first scene. Jack heads to Seattle, with Nick following, in order to set up a new life without the bothers of fatherhood. Jack meets with his old partner in crime Rainey (Don Harvey), who pays Jack a little money. Jack gets a job washing windows on high rise buildings, and settles into a small apartment.

And then there is Nick. He has left Jack's sister's farm to live with him. He skips out on registering for school, and hangs around some homeless street kids downtown. Jack is boozing his way through Seattle, meeting up with Charlotte, who used to write him by way of a personals magazine called "American Heart." Nick gets a job delivering newspapers, and Nick and Jack share their little apartment, upstairs from a topless dancer and her troubled teen daughter Molly (Tracey Kapisky).

The film then meanders through scenes of Jack and Nick arguing, then grudgingly making up, trying to develop some sort of normal relationship. Rainey cannot get Jack to come back to crime, but he does eventually get Nick to serve as a lookout for a job. Jack is saving for an impossible dream of moving to Alaska, and Nick wants to help. Nick and Molly grow closer, and Nick shoplifts a pair of shoes for her. Jack discovers the merchandise, along with some weed. Rainey robs Jack, who is also evicted and fired from his job.

Eventually, the cast begins spiraling downward, as Nick gets involved in a burglary for Rainey that goes horribly wrong, and Molly begins taking after her mother. Jack and Nick decide to leave Seattle, but Jack needs to take care of one more thing first...

Martin Bell was responsible for "Streetwise," the gritty documentary about homeless street kids that is among the greatest documentaries ever produced. He used this experience with this fictional film, but I found this screenplay often resorted to Hollywood convention. The ex-con trying to make it on the outside has been done, but maybe not this well acted before.

I wish Jeff Bridges would just win an Oscar. His performance here is wonderful. He is flawed, and his behavior is innate. He does not want a relationship with Nick, and makes that all too obvious without resorting to stereotypical behavior. Bridges even has a light moment, when Jack's parole officer Normandy (Melvyn Hayward) is banging on the apartment door, and a hungover Jack finds underage Molly fast asleep at the foot of his bed.

Furlong, who I have never liked in anything, gives his best performance here, too. I noticed his scenes where he plays opposite adults are more effective than when he is dealing with his teenage contemporaries. He is sympathetic without being saintly or cutesy. Jack and Nick's argument in the apartment, where Nick smashes a treasured ukulele, is strong stuff. Lucinda Jenney as Charlotte is also good, although Bell unwisely drops her character from the last part of the film after we have become so involved with her. While Don Harvey as Rainey is okay, there is a mentor relationship with Jack that is never fully explored. He looks Furlong's age, someone with a harder edge may have made more of an impact.

"American Heart" is a decent film that should be sought out for the acting. Jeff Bridges deserves all the praise he has ever received, and this film should have given him more than he got. (* * * *) out of five stars.