Monday, August 27, 2012

Rebel Without a Clue

Film: Five Easy Pieces
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

If you swing a dead cat, you’ll hit a film about someone rebelling. Often, this rebellion comes in the form of someone trying for something more than bad luck has given them, youth in revolt against the lower-middle class. So what does it look like when someone revolts against an upper class, classical background? The result is Five Easy Pieces.

Robert Eroica “Bobby” Dupea (Jack Nicholson) works on an oil rig in Texas with his trailer park buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush). He drinks beer, goes bowling, and sometimes cheats on his girlfriend Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), a waitress. For Bobby, this is life. He moves from job to job and woman to woman, looking for something that is never really there. In fact, there’s no evidence that Bobby even knows what he’s looking for or that he’ll be able to realize it when and if he finds it.

Fed up with his job and seeing Elton get busted for skipping bail, Bobby heads off and locates his sister Partita (Lois Smith), a pianist, while she is recording. There are problems with the recording, namely that she is singing the melody, and she takes a break when Bobby appears. She tells him that their father has had a pair of strokes, and that he should return home to Puget Sound to visit. He does, but first must deal with the fact that Rayette is convinced he is leaving her for good, in part because she has discovered that she is pregnant. In a moment of weakness, he allows her to come along.

One of the stranger interludes in the film concerns the pair of crashed motorists Bobby and Rayette pick up along the way. Palm (Helena Kallianiotes) and Terry (Toni Basil, yes, Toni Basil) are headed to Alaska because it’s clean there, and Palm begins a monologue about filth. This is also the part of the film that contains the now-famous restaurant scene where Bobby attempts to order off menu and is eventually kicked out. He and Ray reach Puget Sound, and he checks her into a motel, believing that she will not fit in with his family.

He’s probably right, since Bobby the itinerant oil man comes from a family basking in wealth and made up of classically trained musicians. His brother Carl (Ralph Waite) has had a serious accident and has been forced to give up the violin in favor of the piano. It turns out that Bobby has the same sort of musical training. It is here that he meets Catherine van Oost (Susan Anspach), who is engaged to Carl. Despite their differences in outlook, Bobby and Catherine are attracted to each other, which follows a predictable pattern. Things change when Rayette, bored at being left on her own, shows up at the house.

Five Easy Pieces is another film in the long list I’ve been watching lately of plotless narratives that are far more concerned with character than they are with story. The story here isn’t so much Bobby’s reunion with his family or any sort of peace he makes with his estranged and now mute father, but simply about Bobby himself. His complexity and his opinion are never really expressed, most likely because Bobby himself couldn’t express exactly what he was rebelling against or why his life has turned out the way it has. In fact, were you able to ask him, he probably couldn’t explain his actions at the end of the film, either.

Nonetheless, this is a fascinating film. Nicholson gives a tremendous, heartfelt performance, a nuanced view of this character possible in this case because he hadn’t yet become Jack Nicholson who seems to play the same variation of himself over and over (I’m not complaining—he plays that part really, really well). But this is evidence of why he became as prominent as he did. This is a masterful piece of work on his part, since the entire film turns on his moods and his actions. We have only Bobby to move us from point to point, and at each place in the film, Nicholson is required to both be motivated and yet completely without motivation for his actions. It’s not easy to play aimless this well.

There are a couple of fun smaller roles here, too. If you grew up when I did, Fannie Flagg was best known for being on half a dozen game shows, famous for being famous. But here, she plays Elton’s wife Stoney. We also get an interesting view of Sally Struthers as Betty, a woman Bobby has a couple of flings with during the course of the film.

In many ways, a film like Rebel Without a Cause created the idea of a hero motivated by nothing other than his desire to break away from what is in front of him. Bobby follows in this vein. He doesn’t know what he wants; he just doesn’t want what he is presented with. Nothing satisfies him because he just knows he wants to be somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else. He’s a combination of rage and ennui, disappointment, lost talent, frustration, and wasted potential. In other words, he’s like a lot of people drifting through the motions of life without doing anything.

Hell of a film.

Why to watch Five Easy Pieces: Jack Nicholson at his best before he became the Jack Nicholson we all know.
Why not to watch: It’s the strangest rebellion in many a day.


  1. This is an interesting character study. I think his rebellion is against his strange family--but by the time he escaped he was already tainted himself, so it didn't make much difference if he left or not.

    1. I'm slowly starting to realize that I really like character studies, or at least I like them when they're done this well.

      As for Bobby...I don't think he'll ever find what he wants or that he'll ever be happy.

  2. I never noticed the musical references in the names before, which is proof I need to see this again. Nice use of the word 'interlude.' I see what you did there with music terms, very clever.

    Growing up, my father would recite the diner toast scene to us to make us laugh. I have a soft spot for that scene.

  3. Steve, I totally agree that this is one of Nicholson's best performances. I finally caught up with this movie a few years ago, and it really sneaks up on you. At first, it seemed like a typical road movie with a "rebellious" guy, but Nicholson makes it a lot more by the end. Nice review!

  4. Boy, I should really take credit for the "interlude" comment, but that's complete chance. Maybe I shouldn't admit that. It took me a bit to even get the name of the film--it's five easy pieces to play on the piano, and there are (evidently) five classical pieces played throughout the film.

    This does feel like a road film, but it's not. Interesting when you consider that right before this, Nicholson did Easy Rider, which definitely was a road movie. It's an easy jump to make, but in this case, it's the wrong jump.

  5. One of the best character studies of all-time. I started not caring for this character at all, in the beginning, then by the end, I was totally attached to this guy, especially at the end, when the scenes get even more heart-wrenching. Good review SJ.

    1. Exactly. The ending is so tragic on that front. There's just nothing there for Bobby, and he knows it, but can't act otherwise.

  6. I saw this for the first time about a month ago. While I agree Nicholson does a great job with the role, the movie as a whole didn't do a lot for me. I thought about it some afterwards, and I concluded it was a lot like the loved-by-critics film You Can Count On Me. I didn't much care for that one either because the characters end up no different at the end of the movie than they were at the beginning. Five Easy Pieces was the same thing. Now this can still be fine if I am interested in the character, but Nicholson's was one that I would not have invested fifteen minutes of my time in had I ever met him in real life.

    Just to be clear, I don't consider this a bad movie at all; I just felt it didn't live up to the hype (other than the restaurant scene.)

    1. I see that, but I do see something in him. There's the scene near the end when he defends Rayette in that highbrow discussion that I think speaks more to his character and his dissatisfaction than anything else. That, to me, is not the most memorable scene (that's the restaurant), but it is in many ways the most important one.

      Of course, it's at the end and you have to get there to appreciate it, but when it showed up, I was ready for it.