Saturday, March 25, 2017

What the Dog Saw

Film: Reuben, Reuben
Format: Internet video on laptop.

There’s a specific genre of film that seems odd to me. It’s essentially a character study of an unpleasant person. Sometimes, these films merit Oscar nominations. The most recent I can think of is Blue Jasmine, but Reuben, Reuben is a film very much in the same vein. We’re going to spend a great deal of time with a man who is more or less forced to be interesting because otherwise we’d want nothing to do with him.

The name of the film has nothing to do, really, with our main character. That is one Gowan McGland (Tom Conti), a dissolute half-Scots, half-Welsh poet of both repute and disrepute. His poetry has made him famous, at least in circles that care a bit about poetry. Everything else about him has made him infamous. He’s a womanizer, taken to bedding the middle-aged wives who show up at his poetry readings. He’s a drunk. He’s also a leech, sponging off anyone who is impressed by his talent, going so far as to steal the tips in restaurants before leaving. Worst of all, at least in terms of his career, is that he’s lazy and hasn’t written a thing for five years.

As the film begins, Gowan is essentially sleeping his way across the literary circles of Woodsmoke, CT. He’s not really shy about this, and his reputation is well-known. This doesn’t stop him from continuing to bed married women, including those that he has been warned off. Gowan is also married to a writer named Edith (Kara Wilson), although the marriage is pretty much just in name only. Edith has been commissioned to write a biography of Gowan, and hands him a small tape recorder so that he can put down some thoughts to assist her.

In fact, aside from the women he is bedding, Gowan McGland’s only real friend in town is Frank Spofford (Roberts Blossom), and really, Gowan is better friends with Frank’s sheepdog Reuben (who is the twice-named Reuben of the title). Things change a little bit when, in a drunken stupor on a train, a young woman named Geneva (Kelly McGillis in her screen debut) pays for his ticket. Gowan is immediately infatuated with her in part because of her looks, partly because of her generosity, and partly (one assumes) because of the novelty of having a younger woman show interest in him. Things get slightly (but only slightly) more complicated when he discovers that Geneva is Geneva Spofford and is Frank’s granddaughter.

Things between Gowan and Geneva continue apace, but fitfully because of Gowan’s acerbic personality, drinking, and penchant for causing a scene when he feels it is necessary. Some of his past starts to catch up with him as well in the form of an angry husband who is also a dentist. Since Gowan is particular about his teeth and has been losing them for some time, our angry dentist is able to extract a particularly nasty revenge on the poet, who has long associated the idea of losing his teeth with death. When Geneva reveals that she is pregnant, everything comes to a head for Gowan.

Here’s the thing: Tom Conti is very good in this role, but it’s a terrible role. Gowan McGland, aside from his attractive accent, is an awful human being, and spending any amount of time with him is unpleasant. Reuben, Reuben does a fine job of making sure that we in the audience know exactly how terrible of a human being he is. We’re made aware not just of his penchant for using and abusing people, his petty actions and his relying on his past brilliance, but also of just how much he has wasted his talent. There’s nothing likable about him aside from his ability to turn a good phrase and sound good doing it. And yet, the film makes him irresistible to women, and without much cause.

Needless to say at this point that I wasn’t much of a fan. It’s a well-written story and it’s pretty well acted throughout. Conti can be a likeable actor on screen, and even here, there’s at least a devilish charm through the first half of the film or so. But that wears off. Even the presence of Roberts Blossom, who was capable of solid turns as a character actor, can’t make me enjoy the time I spent with this.

I don’t mind a character study, but they’re hard to like when the character is so unlikeable.

Why to watch Reuben, Reuben: Tom Conti’s brogue.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty unlikable and falls apart significantly.


  1. I love Tom Conti, much like Imelda Staunton I was vaguely familiar with him before this big breakthrough, and I'm glad this made him a more prominent actor but I didn't care for this when I watched it and haven't returned to it since that first time. Frankly I didn't understand the whole point of the movie.

    1. Beyond it being a character study of a man without much character, I agree with you completely.