Saint Ralph


Saint Ralph

Adam Butcher wistfully ponders why he chose a bowl haircut over something less dorky.

(2004) Drama (Goldwyn) Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Tilly, Gordon Pinsent, Shauna MacDonald, Tamara Hope, Frank Crudele, Michael Kanev, Chris Ploszczansky. Directed by Michael McGowan

Sometimes we want something so desperately that we are willing to abandon reason to get it. This is particularly true of the very young, particularly when they are faced with something so terrible they can’t comprehend it.

Ralph Walker attends Catholic school in the industrial town of Hamilton, Ontario circa 1953. He’s a bit on the wild, undisciplined side, but the stern Father Fitzpatrick (Pinsent) forbears somewhat, because he’s aware that the boy’s father has deserted the family and his mother (MacDonald) is seriously ill. Still, he is being cared for by his grandparents, so a little leeway is thrown the boy’s way.

Not so from the general student body, which treats the scrawny, awkward Ralph like the local whipping boy. To make matters work, Ralph – being 14 years old – is discovering just how serious puberty can be. I won’t say every waking thought is taken up with sex, but maybe two out of three. When an occasion of self-abuse at the public pool lands the boy in hot water, Fitzpatrick orders the punishment/penance (this is a Catholic school, after all) to be running on the cross-country team. A little physical exertion might just exhaust the impure thoughts out of the boy, or so the thinking went.

The cross country coach, Father Hibbert (Scott) is a former marathon champion himself, and doesn’t see much in the way of potential in Ralph. After all, Ralph doesn’t seem to inclined to apply himself and is woefully out of shape. The kid is very close to losing his place at the school, wandering directionless through life.

That’s much truer than anyone knows. The reality is that there are no grandparents. Ralph is on his own, subsisting on canned goods his mother had left. There is nobody to take care of him while his mother is ill, so he just makes do. His days are made up of school, then visits to his mother and a sympathetic nurse (Tilly) while he dreams of a young girl named Claire (Hope) that he encountered on a baseball diamond while smoking in between classes. That was Ralph smoking, by the way, not Claire.

Then things get worse. His mom falls into a coma and her prognosis looks bleak. It will take a miracle for her to recover, and Ralph feels heavily the responsibility to manufacture one. A chance remark by Father Hibbert (“The Boston Marathon is the most prestigious footrace in the world. It would be a miracle if someone on this team won it, so put it out of your minds”) sets off a lightning bolt in the 14-year-old. This could be precisely the miracle his mother needs! 

Ralph sets out to train for the marathon. At first, his attempts are pretty laughable, because he simply doesn’t know how. He gets a book from a former marathon champion to help him train, but it turns out that the champion wound up in an asylum shortly after writing the book and most of the information is useless. Ralph remains an object of ridicule, but there is something different about him now. He is focused, possessed with this idea of winning the marathon. Although Father Fitzgerald is now suspicious of Ralph’s living arrangements and is looking into the phantom grandparents, Father Hibbert sees the boy’s determination and agrees to train him. 

Still, it looks like the goal Ralph has set for himself is insurmountable. His first race ends in disaster, and Ralph is depressed. However, he trains hard and actually wins a local marathon. Now he’s getting support and respect from the community, but there are still many obstacles. His house burns down while he is sleeping one night; he barely gets out alive. Now with no place to live, Boston just weeks away and his training far from complete, it looks like Ralph’s miracle is just too far out of reach.

This Canadian production has a great deal of warmth and heart, which while not necessarily missing from similar American movies, is at least in short supply. The movie chugs around without getting overly schmaltzy or self-conscious, and juvenile actor Butcher holds his own, although Scott does a very nice job as the sympathetic ex-marathon running priest, while Tilly is sympathetic (not to mention dang hot in a nurse’s uniform).

There are some extended conversations with God who resembles a young Sid Caesar, and some television-styled montages (this movie was made for Canadian TV and then released theatrically in the States), and a Godawful version of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah” sung by Gord Downie of the Canadian cult band the Tragically Hip. Right song, wrong singer.

Still, there is a bit of charm and not a little bit of Catholic angst. As a former Catholic school survivor, I can admit to finding the parochial school sequences a little too close to home, in a good way. There isn’t anything life-changing about Saint Ralph but as family movies go, this is a pretty solid one. Director McGowan not only evokes the period but also the surroundings, and does it well. As a former marathoner himself, he understands the motivations of the long-distance runner and the proverbial loneliness that is required, but also the triumph of a race well run.

WHY RENT THIS: More heart than you’ll find in any ten movies. Authentic place and time. Fine performances by Butcher and Tilly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Made for Canadian TV and has television production values.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexual content and yes, even a little partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Race Around the Bay, which Ralph is depicted winning, is an actual event and is the oldest structured road race in North America, predating the Boston Marathon by three years.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unreported production budget; the film probably made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Last Lions

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The Answer Man


The Answer Man

Jeff Daniels finds Lauren Graham's resemblence to Shirley MacLaine more noticeable than ever in this scene.

(2009) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings, Nora Dunn, Tony Hale, Anne Corley, Max Antisell, Thomas Roy, Peter Patrikios. Directed by John Hindman

We all want insight into the way the world works. We muddle through as best we can, but the truth is life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. We have to make it work with the tools we have, often with imperfect information.

Arlen Faber (Daniels) seems to have the answers. He wrote a bestselling book entitled “Me and God” which in the words of one person, “redefined spirituality for an entire generation.” However, in the words of another person, “He may have written ‘Me and God’ but he did not read it.” Faber has locked himself away in a charming row house in Philadelphia, shying away from the limelight and the millions of people who want more answers from him. He’s a little bit of J.D. Sallinger in that regard, only without the charm.

When he throws his back out, he’s forced to crawl – literally – to the nearest chiropractor which happens to be Elizabeth (Graham) who’s never heard of him. However her receptionist Anne (Thirlby) certainly has and after Elizabeth renders him (temporarily) pain-free, he swears by his new savior. Mainly he just swears.

He also wants to get rid of a library-full of self-help books he’s accumulated over the years and so he decides to unload them at the local used-book store owned by Kris (Pucci) who himself has just returned from rehab to find a dying father and a bookstore that is nearly as dead. Frustrated and in need of answers, Kris agrees to take the unwanted books in exchange for answers which Arlen reluctantly agrees to. In the meantime, a romance begins to blossom between Arlen and Elizabeth, who is highl protective of her son Alex (Antisell), another one of those precocious indie movie children. Arlen, Elizabeth and Kris are all individually wounded in one way or another; could it be that together they can help each other heal, or at least learn to cope better with their wounds?

That’s really about it in terms of plot. Being that this is an indie movie the film is a bit highbrow in a lot of ways, substituting spiritual/philosophical discussion for the usual banter you find in typical rom-com fare. That’s kind of refreshing for starters. The relationship between Elizabeth and Arlen is actually pretty realistic and there’s some actual chemistry there. That’s also kind of refreshing these days.

I like the idea of the movie using the romantic comedy as a forum for exploring bigger questions about existence, our place in the universe and our own self-image but there are times I get the feeling that the writers were grappling with too many of these big ticket issues and wound up doing justice to none of them. Sometimes less is more, particularly when you’re tackling the big picture.

Daniels is certainly an underrated actor. He always seems to turn in a solid performance; it has been quite awhile since he was in a movie that I didn’t think he was compelling in. That streak continues here. He makes the curmudgeonly, socially awkward and extremely lonely Arlen actually a relatable figure which is an achievement in itself. Certainly on paper Arlen is not terribly likable.

There are similarities between this and the James Brooks comedy As Good As It Gets (which has been the touchstone most critics have been using), but they are definitely very different movies. At the end of the day this is a flawed but ultimately interesting movie that while being ostensibly a romantic comedy certainly doesn’t fit in the typical rom-com cliche film that Hollywood churns out these days. While ultimately this is about the redemption of Arlen Faber, it’s also about our own need to find ourselves in a world where many are willing to give us their own answers, but few of them really pan out.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Daniels and Graham. I like the overall themes to the movie. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film overreaches at times, trying to make a bit more out of its spirituality themes than perhaps it should.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of harsh language, I have to admit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is John Hindman’s directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,676 on an unreported production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Boys Are Back