Friday May 3, 1996
Don't be put off by "The Pallbearer's" tell-nothing title and its yucky trailer selling it as a klunky dark comedy. It is, in fact, a tender, emotion-charged romantic comedy in which pain and humor intermingle in ever-shifting proportions. With the help of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, first-time director Matt Reeves and his co-writer Jason Katims were able to spend a year developing their script, and their time and effort show in a deeply caring attention to emotional shadings and nuances.
Anyone of any age who spent time in limbo after formal education is finally over will be all-too-easily able to identify with David Schwimmer's Tom Thompson, a graduate in architecture who's been seeking a job for about a year. Much to his chagrin, at 25 he is still living at home in Brooklyn with his divorced, sweetly obtuse mother (Carol Kane) who unthinkingly still regards him as a child.
Out of the blue Tom receives a call from a grief-stricken woman (Barbara Hershey) asking him to be a pallbearer at the funeral of her son, who committed suicide. Apparently Tom went to high school with the dead man but can't remember him, but he's such a nice guy he can't say no, only to wind up giving the eulogy, a triumph of glittering generalities and rhetorical questions.
Meanwhile, someone he does remember from high school has returned to the neighborhood, Julie (Gwyneth Paltrow), a pretty, unpretentious young woman he had a crush on. Even though she doesn't at first remember Tom, she's willing to go out with him.
With the prospect of romance and a job--he's been called back for a second interview--Tom feels his spirits lifting at last. But when Julie reminds him that her Brooklyn stay is temporary, allowing her to sort out her options, and he's not hired after all, he is propelled into the arms of Hershey's Ruth, a widowed, mini-skirted blond sexpot who married at 16 and is now desperate in her early 40s. But what if Julie decides to stay on a while longer and is prepared to take her budding romance with Tom more seriously?
The key to Tom--and thereby the entire film--lies in Julie's observation about people worrying so much about other people's feelings that they finally lose track of their own. Tom has such an eagerness to please he's in danger of hurting both himself and others in his constant pretending to be what he is not. "The Pallbearer" is all about Tom learning to be himself.
Schwimmer is a nice-looking young man blessed with a mobile expressiveness that allows his wistfulness to come across amusingly--maybe the downward slope of his eyebrows help. He can seem handsome, as did silent comedian Harold Lloyd when he took off the trademark glasses that made him seem such a nerd, albeit an endearing one.
The capable Schwimmer, of TV's "Friends," holds the film's center with his passion and concentration, even as Tom seems stuck on an emotional seesaw. Hershey is just as commanding as you would expect her to be in revealing an aching vulnerability behind Ruth's brassy, grasping facade. Paltrow is radiant in her fresh presence and is as adept in expressing wide-ranging emotional shifts as Schwimmer and Hershey; all three actors are playing terrifically skittish people.
Along with the ever-distinctive Kane, the film's three stars are supported by several gifted young actors. Michael Vartan and Michael Rapaport play Tom's best friends, Scott, who feels his marriage (to Toni Collette) has lost its glow, and the oafish Brad, who has a relentlessly shrill fiancee (Bitty Schram). The well-crafted "The Pallbearer" is a comedy but one with perhaps even more feeling than laughter.
The Pallbearer, 1996. PG-13, for some sexuality and language. A Miramax presentation of an Abrams/Katims/Webster production. Director Matt Reeves. Producers Jeffrey Abrams & Paul Webster. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster. Screenplay by Jason Katims & Reeves. Cinematographer Robert Elswit. Editor Stan Salfas. Costumes Donna Zakowska. Music Stewart Copeland. Production designer Robin Standefer. Art director Stephen Alesch. Set decorator Kate Yatsko. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. David Schwimmer as Tom Thompson. Gwyneth Paltrow as Julie DeMarco. Barbara Hershey as Ruth Abernathy. Carol Kane as Tom's Mom.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun