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Frank and Ollie is a documentary about Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt Disney Studios’ legendary animators. Though Johnston and Thomas were among the most influential animators of their time, their work is utterly upstaged by their extraordinary lifelong friendship. The two met at Stanford in 1931 and began working at the Disney Studios in ’34 and ’35, respectively, where they were salaried at $17 a week. It was the height of the Depression, and, as one of them recalls—for once, it seems thematically appropriate not to remember which one—“It was Disney or the WPA.” At the time, they lived in the same boarding house and shared the same razor; some 60-odd years later, the two still live next door to each other.
The film was written and directed by Thomas’ son, Theodore. You can’t expect much negativity from a documentary directed by its subject’s offspring, and there are no revelations here worthy of Hollywood’s Dark Prince (the controversial revisionist biography that had Uncle Walt, among other things, breakfasting on doughnuts dipped in scotch). The film tells its story with interviews, old photographs, and clips from Disney classics. Starting from the premise that animators are essentially “acting with a pencil,” it includes frequent sequences in which Thomas or Johnston act out the movements of characters that then appear in film footage. (This process was something at which Disney himself reportedly excelled. Johnston remembers making a presentation about a scene in which Goofy wakes up; looking across the room, he saw Disney stretching and twisting his face. “My god, I’m working for a spastic,” he thought. He later realized that the studio head was suggesting facial expressions for the animated dog.)
As one observer has noted, much of Frank and Ollie is cute in the not-necessarily-interesting manner of someone else’s home movies. For obvious reasons, the filmmakers are rather indulgent: Too much screen time, for example, is devoted to Thomas’ piano playing and Johnston’s passion for miniature trains. (Other shortcomings are less readily explicable, such as the uniform idiocy of the film’s talking heads. One provides a moment of unintentional amusement when he explains that he’s never been as close to anyone as Thomas and Johnston are to each other. “I mean…to a male friend,” he amends hastily.) Happily, Thomas and Johnston are more interesting than Thomas Jr. is inept. The pair are full of reminiscences about Disney’s golden age, when, understandably, cruel caricatures were a workaday hazard. “One comment could lead to 50 drawings,” Johnston recalls. And as it turns out, animation entails accountability: Thomas recounts being introduced to a woman who came back with a chilly, “So you’re the guy who killed Bambi’s mother.”
A near-perfect knockoff of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, The Pallbearer lacks only a hummable Simon and Garfunkel score. (The importance of a good soundtrack cannot be overestimated; it’s all very well to load down a film with sophisticated fare like Django Reinhardt and Stan Getz, but neither “I Surrender Dear” nor “Sambolero” is any substitute for “The Sounds of Silence.”) Not only do the filmmakers appropriate The Graduate’s plot, but they add insult to injury by casting David Schwimmer, star of the cheesiest sitcom on television, in the Dustin Hoffman role. (A friend recently agreed to accept my claim that I have never watched an episode of Friends if I accepted his that he had never patronized Starbucks.) The mystery, then, is that The Pallbearer is really not bad at all.
Co-scripted by first-time director Matt Reeves and Jason Katims (a former story editor for My So-Called Life), the film is about Tom Thompson (Schwimmer), a recent college graduate who lives at home with his mother in a room that still has a personalized license plate affixed to the door, and bunk beds. As he ingenuously tells a prospective employer, “It would be great to get this job so I could get out of my mother’s house.” Tom is flustered when a high-school crush, Julie DeMarco (Gwyneth Paltrow, who is far preferable to the insipid Katharine Ross), reappears on the scene. Soon thereafter, he receives a call from Ruth Abernathy (Barbara Hershey, who is no substitute for Anne Bancroft), a bereaved mother of a high-school classmate who asks him to deliver the eulogy for her son. Tom has no memory of the deceased but, being an essentially good-hearted guy, fakes it, and soon finds himself ministering to the older woman in more ways than one.
A sort of black humor–lite pervades the film. In the scene currently seen every five minutes in the film’s TV ads, for instance, Tom drags the coffin off course to ask Julie out for coffee. In a symbolic gesture both poignant and ludicrous, Tom drinks chocolate milk with the dead guy’s silly straw after bedding his mother. (Clearly, the filmmakers are not immune to irony: The deceased also leaves Tom an AMC Pacer in his will.) Tom, the kind of chronically unsavvy guy who goes to a party and brings wine in a box, is a familiar type. Fortunately, he gets a lot of support from his, well, friends, a likable ensemble that includes Toni Collette from Muriel’s Wedding and the suddenly ubiquitous Michael Rapaport. When it’s not aping The Graduate, The Pallbearer presents a surprisingly compassionate view of those who have trouble outgrowing high school. This is crystallized in a great scene in which Tom is scandalized when he catches his friends indulging in that rite of encroaching middle age, a couples social event.
Later this year, Jane Campion will follow The Piano with a film version of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. It would seem a perfect match of filmmaker and novel: All Campion’s films are portraits of ladies. (Though it’s hard to imagine that Nicole Kidman’s Isabel Archer will have much in common with the maladroit heroines of films like An Angel at My Table and Sweetie.) Campion’s feature-length TV drama, Two Friends, is no exception. Written by Helen Garner (who also scripted Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous) and produced by Jan Chapman (Chez Nous, The Piano), Two Friends was made for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1986. Though its delayed theatrical release seems to suggest it, the 10-year-old film is hardly juvenilia; Two Friends was one of three Campion works chosen for Cannes that year (the others were shorts).
The film is about the dissolution of a friendship between a pair of adolescent girls, Louise (Emma Coles) and Kelly (Kris Bidenko). Two Friends starts in the present and moves backward over the course of a year, opening when the teenagers are estranged and closing when they are inseparable; Louise is a neatly uniformed schoolgirl and Kelly is a punked-out drifter, but the two are virtually identical by film’s end. The chief difference between them seems to be Louise’s coolly tolerant mother, Janet (Kris McQuade); though Louise is as obnoxious as any teenager, she and her mother have the kind of relationship that is unshaken by adolescent surliness. Kelly, who goes home to a perpetually harried mother and a pointlessly antagonistic stepfather, spends more time at Louise’s house than her own.
Two Friends is loaded with dead-on detail about teenage friendships. It manages to capture both the heady (at school, Kelly writes a six-page letter to Louise, who is sitting at an adjacent desk) and passive/aggressive (Kelly ditches Louise at the pool to smoke cigarettes with the boys) aspects of adolescent relationships. The script holds many unexpected pleasures, examining, for instance, the “love triangle” that often develops between mothers, daughters, and daughters’ best friends. It is also unsparing in its depiction of how rotten teenagers are: Even well-behaved Louise treats her mother like an imbecile. Notwithstanding its sluggish pace and the real-time dreariness with which it is suffused, Two Friends chronicles the devolution of closeness with considerable grace.CP