Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Nice and quiet and one more reason why Nicholson is the man.
Five Easy Pieces is about a middle-aged, blue-collar Californian oil rigger who spends his meandering days boozing, bowling and womanizing behind his ditzy girlfriend’s back. Then one day he gets word that his father’s dying, so he heads back home for the first time after abandoning his family years prior and comes face-to-face with the life he was born into along with the new life he’s adopted.
My first introduction to director Bob Rafelson, my first introduction to writer Carole Eastman, and they sure do make a fine first impression. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie like this, and a lot of that goes back to the fact there’s not enough ritalin in the world to make us dish out 13 bucks (yes, it’s officially 13 bucks in NYC now) for a talking heads meditation on a blue-collar guy with a blue-collar job and a blue-collar life, and it’s a welcome change of pace. Nothin’ fancy, and that’s alright.
Yeah, it’s all about pulling back the surface and reading between the lines with this one, and while Rafelson’s direction isn’t exactly compelling me to jam pack my Netflix queue with his life’s work, Eastman’s doing her thing quite well. Were it not for a couple scenes where Jack flips his lid, this is very much a talking heads joint with some choice one-liners and speeches that speak volumes. Some of it feels like it’s just there for filler, like a hitcher who won’t shut the eff up about anything and everything even though she ends every sentence with “I don’t even wanna talk about it,” and even though I could have done without that noise, there’s enough quality writing here to keep me surprisingly interested in this otherwise humdrum story.
But the truth is, you put Jack Nicholson in front of the camera – especially 1970s Jack Nicholson – and he’s your main attraction. The writing is good, the direction is good, but no one ever did it like Jack and he’s great here as Bobby Dupea. He’s hot-headed, he’s a back-door man, he’s quick to speak his mind without giving a damn about what anyone else has to say, and he’s unsatisfied with life but seems to insist on giving the impression that he’s right where he wants to be.Yet the whole time we really don’t why Bobby acts the way he does, and it doesn’t seem like Bobby’s got the answer either.
And that’s the movie: us trying to figure out what motivates this guy and what the hell his deal is, and the interesting thing is that he’s in the same boat. Even when he tries to make some sense out of it, it still doesn’t seem like he has an explanation for the way he is and that’s why as a character he works.
Nicholson gets a handful of opportunities to bring out his inner madman as he tells off stubborn waitresses like a total badass and gets in barking matches with dogs while drunk off his ass, wandering around a highway traffic jam, and that’s a big reason why he rocks. No one gets pissed like Jack. But it’s the rare instance where he tries to open up to someone and quickly breaks down thereafter that winds up being more memorable than any of his freakouts. That back-and-forth between vulnerability and raging insanity is a hard thing to find in actors and a wonderfully difficult thing to unravel as a passive observer.
And Karen Black ain’t bad as Bobby’s girl, Rayette, but she’s not quite the puzzle that her man is.
Five Easy Pieces is a very no-frills character study about a guy who’s got the potential to be extraordinary and the prerogative to be anything but. May not be relatable to a tee, but it does touch upon some inherently human fears and urges that hold us back and push us forward even when the reasons might not be there. Spends more time meandering around than I would have like and you kinda have to be in the right mood for it, then again, you don’t see too many fascinatingly complex dudes like Bobby any more these days.
FUN FACT: Apparently Melvin Udall from As Good as It Gets is supposed to be Bobby Dupea nearly 30 years down the line. Could be bullshit, but I can see it. Neato bandito.