The plucky, well-intentioned Stanley & Iris is awash in positive thinking. So it is no surprise when, at the movie’s conclusion, Stanley (Robert De Niro) declares, “Iris, anything is possible.” By then, Stanley has a right to sound brashly optimistic. At the film’s outset, he is a blue-collar worker who has suffered all his life from the terrible handicap and shame of being illiterate. Under the tutelage of Iris Gane Fonda), a widowed bakery worker, he at last learns to read and write. To its credit, Stanley & Iris dramatizes an often overlooked and astonishingly widespread problem: an estimated 32 million U.S. and Canadian adults are functionally illiterate. But in essence, the film is really more of a predictable love story than a relevant social commentary.
The film assembles a lot of bankable talent in addition to its Oscar-winning leads, Fonda and De Niro. Its director,
Stanley & Iris is set in another hard-
up community, a New England mill town where the factories are old and bridges rust over sludge-brown rivers. Eight months after the death of her husband, the grieving Iris is the only employed person in a household of five. Apart from her own teenage daughter, Kelly (Martha Plimpton), and younger son Richard (Harley Cross), she is also sheltering her aimless sister (Swoosie Kurtz) and her sister’s husband Gamey Sheridan) under her roof.
One day a thief makes off with Iris’s purse, and Stanley, a canteen cook at the bakery where she works, comes to her assistance. They strike up a tentative friendship. A few weeks later, Stanley’s boss asks him to get Aspirin for Iris, who has a headache, and Stanley produces one bottle of pills after another, exposing his inability to read. The boss fires him. Eventually, Stanley works up the courage to ask Iris to teach him reading, and De Niro plays Eliza Doolittle to Fonda’s Professor Higgins. At times he gives up, believing that he is destined to forever be a “big dummy.” But, spurred on by his strong feelings for his teach-
Martin Ritt, and screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. previously teamed up on Norma Rae, the 1979 hit starring Sally Field about a union drive among textile workers.
er, he manages to get beyond the basics of reading—and beyond first base with Iris.
De Niro’s performance is the best thing about the movie. With his homely-handsome palooka’s mug and reticent but commanding presence, he is wonderfully convincing as an intelligent man trapped inside the disability that he refers to as his “prison.” But even he has trouble with some of the film’s unnatural dialogue. When Iris’s son says that his deceased father used to let him leave a light on in his room at night, De Niro, who has recently lost his own father, replies, “My father was the light.” Fonda, meanwhile, appears uncomfortable with the saintly role of Iris, and her performance is frequently mannered. She seems altogether too genteel and ethereal for a woman who spends her days slapping frosting on assembly-line cakes. At one point, recalling sex with her husband, Iris describes it as “getting playful.” See Stanley read. See Iris smile. See Stanley and Iris get playful.
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