The Paper Chase (1973)
PG. Oh, 1973! You went too easy on this one! An era before PG-13 was a lawless time. I'm not saying the movie is dirty, but it certainly ain't PG.
DIRECTOR: James Bridges
I knew I shouldn't have binged those reviews. I had some time. My work was all done. And then I fell super behind. To my devoted reader, I'm sorry. I should have been more on the ball. But you know what? I'm going to give it my all. Even though I watched this movie, like, a week ago. Let's start off by establishing that my IMDB search of this movie cracked my brain open. This one had a TV show starring John Houseman, the same guy who played Professor Kingsfield in this one. That's right. They spun it off into a TV show six or seven years after the fact. So apparently I might be the only one who didn't know that The Paper Chase had enough of a following to be spun off into a TV show for four seasons. That's moderately successful. Also, it might have had the same problem that Community did, wondering who spent more than four years at school with the exact same cast. Anyway...
The movie screams '70s. Google Timothy Bottoms in The Paper Chase. I'll wait. Got it? Okay, that's the definition of "handsome, male, romantic lead" in 1973. The biggest lazy fro I've seen and a mustache that won't quit. Good day. Already, I'm giving this movie more chances than I have other movies. But the movie falls also into a subgenre that I'm uber pretentious about. I'm talking about the students trying to impress the teacher subgenre. I don't know if it is the atmosphere of respect for academia or what, but I want to live in that world. I'm surrounded by cynical kids all day who are all about beefing up resumes. It's nice to see a character like Hart trying to impress an old grump like Kingsfield. The weird part is that, even though I like this relationship on film, I always hated the professor who prided himself on how challenging his class was. It was so inaccessible and hindered the acquisition of education. I never want to be that professor, but I think my joy lies in the abstract. That relationship comes from a place of respect. Maybe a little bit of fear, but respect oozes out of Hart and that's pretty cool to experience, even if the characters are fictional and live in a dream world. I like to feel vicariously smart, okay?
The biggest problem I have is the romantic center of the movie. When I love a romance on screen, I'll defend it to my dying day. When I hate a romance, golly, do I nitpick the living daylights out of it. I don't like this relationship. Outside the fact that Hart is challenged by Kingsfield, pushing him to be a better student, he's kind of a turd of a human being. (You're welcome, Villa Madonna Academy, for this marketing tool that I put out on a regular basis with phrases like "a turd of a human being.") Hart is remarkably selfish, but then he's balanced out with Susan, who is also kind of the worst. Remember how everyone was ripping into Rory Gilmore a few months ago? Take Rory and let her know that she's the worst. The Paper Chase is built on two horrible people finding each other. They are both two people who put their own needs first and that makes me kind of depressed. Add onto the fact that I can't get past Timothy Bottoms's hair in this movie and there's no good that I can get out of their friendship. You know what the problem is? The movie advocates drama, and I'm not talking the kind that enhances the film. Nope, these people overcomplicate their relationship because of their personalities. The movie asks us to applaud that, but I really do think that they would be happier without each other. It is a relationship of settling. How sad does that make me? Moderately sad. I still overall would watch them, but little of me was actually rooting for them.
SPOILER: I don't buy the ending. I just don't. It has all the elements of a great ending, but it also seems wildly out of character. I have to compare it to the prepackaged dessert treat versus what you'd find in a bakery. There is so much there that would make that final shot memorable. The beach and the couple. The day is perfect and the waves are lapping the shore. Birds fly and Susan comes out of her house. They have reconciled and found each other again. So far, I'm good. I don't necessarily buy all of it because they seem like garbage people with garbage problems, but the movie is entertaining and I think they needed some resolution. Fine. I get it. But Hart's tossing his grades into the ocean. Nothing about the last twenty minutes of the movie reflects that he would do that. He has cathartic and growth moments, sure. The scene in the elevator with Kingsfield was a major turning point in his life. He didn't need the affirmation of that man. But the movie was about proving himself to be the best where no one actually thought he could be. He went from being a guy puking in the bathroom over embarrassment to being the best in the class. He didn't need Kingsfield's affirmation, but he still needed his own. I know that the director and screenwriter would probably argue that he had earned that resolution, but that's not what mattered. Yes, he did well and he probably knew that he did well, but the character hadn't abandoned he neuroses. He was a psychopath in a hotel room and there had to be some coming down from that.
This movie's greatness (and I assure you, it is there) comes from its setting. There is no real external conflict. It is one year in the life of a Harvard Law freshman. The setting is cool. Yeah, I can get behind some of Hart's personality. Yes, I can admire a guy like Kingsfield. But it is in the small performances. I love the dynamic, albeit filled with two dimensional tropes, of the study group. I love the papers flying out the window. I love 1970s dorm culture and the friendships that were formed along the way. There's something cool and honest about all of these moments. I want that now that I'm 33. Probably back in the day, I would have scoffed at a lot of this stuff, but the movie made contract law look interesting. So I nitpick, but the movie does have something really special about it. Doesn't mean I don't want to punch Hart in the face from time-to-time.
Leave a Reply.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.