While it was advertised as a warm, feel-good family comedy a la MOONSTRUCK, this film is actually a bit more. It may remind viewers of other "crazy family" films, but USED PEOPLE is somewhat darker, harsher and more rewarding than first impressions would indicate. The film is set in Queens, New York, in 1969, just as two miracles are about to occur: man's...read more
While it was advertised as a warm, feel-good family comedy a la MOONSTRUCK, this film is actually a bit more. It may remind viewers of other "crazy family" films, but USED PEOPLE is somewhat darker, harsher and more rewarding than first impressions would indicate.
The film is set in Queens, New York, in 1969, just as two miracles are about to occur: man's landing on the moon, and the Met's world series victory. Pearl Berman (Shirley MacLaine) and her family are returning from her husband's funeral, back to an apartment crammed with food, bickering relatives
and nosy neighbors. One visitor is Joe (Marcello Mastroianni) whom no one seems to know; he claims to have known the deceased, and barges into the bedroom where Pearl has sequestered herself to ask if she'd like to have coffee sometime. Pearl's family and friends are aghast at his brazenness,
including Pearl's mother, Frieda (Jessica Tandy), and daughters, Bibby (Kathy Bates) and Norma (Marcia Gay Harden).
Pearl, upset as she is, begins to consider Joe's offer, and they do meet "for coffee" in a bar, where Joe tells her how he came to know her late husband, and her. He recounts that Mr. Berman came into the bar one night ready to leave Pearl, but Joe convinced him to go home, take his wife
wordlessly in his arms, and dance with her. (This last incident is shown in flashback at the opening of the film.) Joe confesses he watched the whole incident from the street below, and for the last 23 years has been in love with Pearl. Pearl runs out of the bar, more out of guilt for feeling
something for this stranger, than out of shock, as she later explains.
Bibby and Norma, both divorced, have their own troubles: Bibby has a weight problem, two kids and a dead-end job, and is forced to live with Pearl; Norma, still coping with losing a child three years before, dresses up as various movie stars to distract herself. Her son, who is always referred to
as Swee'pea although he's about ten, now considers himself "invincible," thanks to his late grandfather "protecting" him, and tempts fate several times, convinced nothing bad will happen to him. Frieda and her friend Becky (Sylvia Sidney), when they're not one-upping each other over who has worse
physical ailments, are trying to decide where to spend their remaining years: a retirement home in Queens vs. Florida.
To make up for their first uncomfortable meeting, Joe prepares an elaborate Italian dinner for Pearl and both their families, which once again ends in chaos: Bibby and Norma have a fight; Joe's psychiatrist son-in-law flirts with Norma; and Swee'pea attempts to convince the doctor to take him as a
client, convinced he's going insane. Nevertheless, Joe continues his courtship of Pearl: he delivers an air conditioner to her apartment; writes her a song; and becomes a surrogate grandfather for Swee'pea, rescuing him from several of his attempts at immortality. While rearranging her apartment
after Bibby leaves for California, Pearl comes across the note and the money that her husband was going to leave her the night Joe met him. Pearl sees that Joe was telling the truth, her attitude begins to change and eventually they do wind up together.
Although the score is occasionally heavy-handed, USED PEOPLE is not as saccharine as it might have been, thanks to actor-turned-screenwriter Todd Graff and rising British director Beeban Kidron (ANTONIA & JANE), making her Hollywood film debut. When we first meet them, many of the characters are
not particularly likable, and the various plots don't always resolve themselves with tears and hugs. The Berman women are all coping with unfulfilled and disappointing lives, and it shows in their actions and their dialogue; these are people who find it easier to pick each other apart than to show
affection. Bates and MacLaine have a scene where each lets out years of repressed feelings and hurt; it's fairly jolting, and rare to see a mother-daughter conflict expressed so bluntly.
The film does have some lapses, most notably Norma, who comes off more as a nutty "character" than a fully developed one. (The scene where she tries to seduce the psychiatrist in order to stop him from seeing her son is especially ludicrous.) Joe, also, seems too good to be true, his kindness and
understanding in sharp contrast to the people around him. Mastroianni's accent is sometimes impenetrable as well.
The film does have a feel for Jewish family life that some may find all-too-authentic (right down to details like the running gag of the relatives arguing over which highway is the quickest), as well as subtle ways of illustrating the persistance of behavior patterns from generation to generation,
with Norma's son's embarrassing moniker being a descendant of "Bibby," the diminutive of Barbara that is still how Pearl addresses her daughter. But just when things get too cranky or too painfully true for comfort, Kidron inserts a lovely scene of people all over the neighborhood watching the
moon landing, from apartments, fire escapes and rooftops; played simply, but adding a slightly magical touch to the film. It seems to say that even in the most ordinary of lives, some magic is still possible. (Profanity, sexual situations.)
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