From blue-collar romance to Manhattan decadence, popular culture in the United States is capable of prodigious extremes. Two new American movies, Jacknife and Slaves of New York, portray worlds so different that it is hard to imagine them coexisting in the same country. Coincidentally, they both come from directors who have made their reputations in the British film industry—Jacknife'?, David Jones won acclaim for 84 Charing Cross Road (1987); Slaves director James Ivory won an Oscar for A Room With a View (1985). And both scripts were created by novice New York City screenwriters transforming their own work from another medium. Jacknife, which Stephen Metcalfe adapted from his 1982 play, Strange Snow, is a drab, small-town drama about two army veterans coming to terms with what has come to be known as post-Vietnam stress syndrome. Slaves of New York, which Tama Janowitz recycled from her 1986 collection of stories, is a gaudy comedy of manners about a woman suffering from what could be called post-Warhol stress syndrome: its heroine is a veteran of sexual wars in the Manhattan art world. Both movies offer hot flashes of wit and ingenuity, but in each case the creative possibilities burn themselves out all too quickly.
Jacknife stars Robert De Niro in a beard and a baseball cap. He plays Joseph, a Connecticut garage mechanic. He is nicknamed Jacknife
because he is rumored to have wrecked a tractor-trailer long ago—a pointed metaphor in a tale of two men coping with a trauma bigger than both of them. The story begins with Joseph paying an early-morning visit to Dave (Ed Harris), a combat buddy whom he has not seen since the Vietnam War. While Dave slowly emerges from a severe hangover, Joseph charms his sister, Martha (Kathy Baker), into uncapping a couple of beers for breakfast. A classic triangle evolves: as romance blossoms between Joseph and Martha, Dave—who depends on his protective sister to hide from the past—feels threatened.
Ultimately, the romance between Joseph and Martha is just a device to detonate a land mine of deeply buried business between the two men. Secrets gradually surface about an episode in Vietnam involving the death of a mutual friend. Dave wants to forget it; Joseph wants to resurrect it. Martha, a teacher, just wants to be taken to the prom. As Joseph says, “How could she understand? She wasn’t there.” Movies about healing the psychological scars of the Vietnam War bear a frustrating message: you had to be there, but if you were there, now that you are back you are not really here.
Lumbering toward a predictable conclusion, Jacknife is weighed down by too many noble intentions. And along the way, its brilliant little cast seems to get locked in an acting workshop,
an exercise that starts to resemble an interminable game of I Spy. De Niro’s talent rages unchecked as if the movie has been designed solely to indulge him. His character even harasses a truck-stop waitress in a confrontation that strongly resembles ' Jack Nicholson’s classic “Hold the mayo” scene in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. As always, De Niro creates an engaging presence onscreen no matter what he is doing. But all his sleight of hand cannot divert Jacknife from a kitchen-sink collision course with boredom.
By contrast, Slaves of New York goes out of its way to be flamboyant. Parodying the glitter of the Manhattan art scene, it celebrates surface, not substance. Bernadette Peters deadpans skilfully as Eleanor, the doormat girlfriend of a sulky graffiti artist named Stash (Adam Coleman Howard). Stash, who got his start “sawing the legs off furniture and calling it conceptual art,” is now a big man on the gallery circuit. But Eleanor feels terribly insecure. She makes outlandish hats out of salvaged junk, but no one buys them and they fall apart because she cannot sew. Meanwhile, she is afraid of losing Stash to the shameless Daria (Madeleine Potter), who seems willing to sleep with anyone to gain an audience with a gallery owner. Everyone is obsessed with status—except Eleanor, who insists: “I’m a normal person. I’m trying to achieve the middle class.”
Janowitz’s script flaunts its author’s intelligence like a flashy display of costume jewelry. In her vision of Manhattan, as expressed by one character, “hundreds of women are out on the prowl,” competing for a dwindling stock of real men. Meanwhile, women who are living with men are afraid to break up for fear of losing an affordable apartment. Artists fight for custody of a lease, not a child. Janowitz’s male characters tend to be tortured geniuses in tattered jeans; the women are fashion victims, human canvases vying for attention in extravagant costumes. Complains one character: “I’m sick of living in a city where the women do absolutely nothing to support each other. The men hate women and the women hate women.”
Despite that feminist veneer, Slaves still seems shackled to the world it attempts to satirize. Serving up an amusing slice of sociology in the form of a pop-art costume pageant, the lame narrative meanders for more than two hours. Martin Scorsese’s vivacious contribution to the current film New York Stories—a vignette about a Manhattan artist—tackles the same terrain much more effectively in less than 40 minutes. Slaves at first seems full of fun and promise. But it drags on too long without ever taking off, like a stylish party that sends its guests into the night still craving a good time.
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