Friday, June 03, 2016

This Boy's Life (1993)

USA, 115 minutes
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Writers: Tobias Wolff, Robert Getchell
Photography: David Watkin
Music: Carter Burwell
Editor: Jim Clark
Cast: Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Blechman, Eliza Dushku, Chris Cooper, Carla Gugino, Zachary Ansley, Tobey Maguire

This Boy's Life is something less than the sum of its many promising parts. Set in Concrete, Washington, in the late '50s and early '60s, and based on Tobias Wolff's excellent memoir of the same name, it also assembles an impressive cast in Ellen Barkin, Robert De Niro, and the young and skinny Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio was not yet 20 when this was made, though it was already his third feature film after establishing himself in TV. (When the time comes to vote for postage stamp images of DiCaprio, I'm pretty sure I will choose young-and-skinny, unlike my preference for the Elvis Presley.) The problem may be in director Michael Caton-Jones or screenwriter Robert Getchell or both. They were relatively untried then (and have not done much I know since), and both came with apparent debts to Martin Scorsese.

Certainly the opening here is reminiscent of Goodfellas, from only a few years earlier, with its voiceover narrative approach and even more in its attempt to pump up an instant big soundtrack moment with a '50s oldies, a strategy that recurs often here. The many songs that populate the soundtrack remain basically wonderful—that's Frank Sinatra's "Let's Get Away From It All" in the open, and others here, among a couple of dozen, include Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," Nat King Cole's "Smile," and the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love." But the magic with the narrative or the images somehow rarely ever happens, though it's nice to hear the songs. At the same time, the dynamic between Tobias Wolff (DiCaprio), or "Jack" as he wants to be called for most of this movie (after Jack London, a nice point), and his mother Caroline (Barkin) is straight out of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore—which, it turns out, Getchell wrote, along with many episodes of the follow-on TV series. You get the feeling of déjà vu a lot when you're looking at This Boy's Life.

The basic problem to me is that it distorts the original memoir to make it work as a specific kind of movie, which happened to be rather popular at the time: the abuse situation drama. Launched, perhaps, by 1984's TV movie The Burning Bed, by the '90s it held a certain familiar vogue, whose rhythms were known and recognizable at all levels of good and bad filmmaking: Sleeping With the Enemy, If Someone Had Known, Bastard Out of Carolina, Once Were Warriors, and countless numbers on the Lifetime channel. It even played out in public, in a bizarre way, in the Supreme Court justice confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, with Anita Hill's confrontation of him. As with This Boy's Life, these dramas incorporate what we know of the psychology of the situations, the way they move and explode, the way they look and feel.

We knew the drill well by the time of this movie. Robert De Niro is Dwight, the stepfather whom the compulsively itinerant Caroline marries out of desperation to escape impoverishment. Predictably, De Niro is very good at being malevolent and creepy, and to his credit, he even finds fresh new ways to do it here, working a variation on the soft-spoken Rupert Pupkin as a seething small-town Navy veteran and auto mechanic. At first he seems like just a mild-mannered dork, making corny dad jokes and being pleasant, but soon enough the hard edges show, the insecurities and the childish levels he descends to in his furies, his whole sick worldview. It's not hard to imagine him as a Trump supporter in his 70s today. De Niro is good at this, but he's also running in place, as he had been increasingly since at least Goodfellas, with roles in movies such as Cape Fear, goofing on his preestablished persona and our expectations. For that matter, even Goodfellas was running in place, but it's also a kind of apotheosis of what he does best.

Some of the best scenes in This Boy's Life are good in spite of feeling so didactic, as one scene where we see illustrated how the abuser controls a household with enforced silence and his moods. Caroline and Jack are having a cheerful conversation about positive developments in Jack's life, which sends Dwight into an infantile rage of jealousy. Dwight's formal complaint is that they are talking too loud for him to enjoy the phonograph record he's playing, but at that point they are sullenly forced to acknowledge the choice he offers them to either shut up or put up with his rage, and they do what Dwight wants.

This Boy's Life is not without its effects—you feel manipulated but also helplessly exhilarated when Caroline and Jack are finally poised to take action and get away from Dwight. Bring a hanky for the closing scenes, just in case. It also has a great feel for the midcentury American West, when Phoenix and Seattle were much different fantasy destinations from what they are now, and cars were like chariots over the Great Plains and desert. Lots of great oldies on the soundtrack. A chance to see De Niro work out some of the fine kinks in his routine, and to see DiCaprio studying De Niro closely. Another chance to see Ellen Barkin. And some valuable lessons to mull over about abusers and abuse. But, to be clear, and to sound a tired old note, the book is better—much, much better.


  1. Richard Riegel here, Jeff, thanks for your recommendation above to read the original "This Boy's Life", which you found much better than the movie, and which I've finally done. I entertained a misapprehension about Tobias Wolff for years, as his byline has such a spawn-of-yuppies ring to me, that I always assumed he'd been born in the 1970's or '80s, might even have been educated preciously Montessori. Got quite a surprise when I ogled him on Wikipedia and discovered that he's actually both older (by 1.5 years) and balder than your certifiably-ancient reporter. So Wolff and I grew up in tandem era-wise, which gave us some similar experiences, though I was the one with a stable family, thankfully. Toby's/Jack's wicked stepfather Dwight reminded me a lot of my high school driver-training teacher Gordon. At least I had to put up with Gordon's belittling remarks only while amateurishly negotiating a parking space in class, rather than full time in my home.

    I agree with you that "This Boy's Life" is very well-written, and I'm glad that Jack and his mother were eventually able to escape Dwight's clutches, and that Wolff has been able to establish himself as a successful writer and academic in subsequent years. However, the further I read through "This Boy's Life", the less I liked that boy's youthful character. We may have been contemporaries, but I was his opposite when it came to his obsession with guns and targeting passerby, his poor schoolwork, his adolescent stealing and vandalism, and most of all his almost Trumpian sense of ENTITLEMENT that he should be admitted to the most prestigious prep schools and colleges, despite his grades, as long as he could forge all the necessary transcripts and reference letters to do so. Not the kind of guy who would have been my friend in those tossed-salad days of the '60s, but he and his love of guns went to Vietnam, and me and my pacifism didn't, so I guess there's some karma there. Looking forward now to reading more of Wolff's books, to see if his attitudes gradually improved to match his unquestionable writing skills over the years. Thanks again for directing me his way.

  2. Thanks for your comments as always, Richard. That's a great point about Jack's / Toby's poor character, which I think I mostly took as DiCaprio, but last time through he did remind me painfully of some bullies I had to negotiate in junior high times. I haven't read Wolff much in a long while, though I'm currently going through a great short story anthology he edited. If you do get to anything more by him, please stop back if you can and let me know what you think. I liked his Vietnam memoir, In Pharoah's Army, and especially many of his short stories -- all three of his '80s collections have many good pieces.