Picks and Pans Review: Stanley & Iris
Unlike Lange, Fonda has a hard time de-glamorizing herself. Wonderful actress that she is, she—like her sometime co-star Robert Redford—has a very hard time making herself look really bad.
Most of the time being gorgeous is not all that troublesome a problem, but in this case it tends to be a major distraction. Fonda is playing a widowed assembly-line worker at a huge bakery in a dreary Connecticut town. Yet whenever she walks out at quitting time, her California tan and golden-brown hair make her fairly glow in the middle of her mostly nondescript fellow workers.
Then her brother-in-law, explaining that he married her sister because she was cute, provokes Fonda to say, "None of us stay cute." Let's face it: Jane herself has obviously managed to stay totally, flamboyantly, cosmically cute and is operating at maximum cuteness in this film. Even when she's supposed to be sick with colitis, Fonda fairly beams with the appearance of robust good health, as if she had just worked through a whole set of her videotapes and is looking around for a marathon to run.
Her romance with De Niro, which follows hard on her discovery that he is illiterate and her vaguely puzzling immediate decision to teach him to read, has some moments of warm byplay. (Fonda is all takes and frowns and raised eyebrows, while De Niro mixes impassivity and a sly kind of self-confidence.) These warm feelings are largely dissipated, though, by the film's overearnest tone and all the loopholes left in its plot by director Martin Ritt and writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (who teamed with Ritt on Norma Rae, among other projects).
Especially disconcerting is the rapid transformation De Niro undergoes when he learns to read. One minute he can't read a street sign; the next he's writing poetic letters from his new job, apparently as some sort of white-collar technician or engineer, in Detroit.
Ravetch and Frank also indulged in what is for them an uncharacteristic amount of stilted dialogue, heavy on the epigrams: "A man could drown in your blue eyes"; "I'm going to spend some time and money on you. See if we can put a match to this fire"; and, when Fonda lectures her newly pregnant teenage daughter, "It's not just a jolt of semen, it's a human being."
At the end, by willing away any vestiges of common sense, it's possible to root a little for the romance if you think of the film as a gussied-up Marty, but too many inconsistencies and implausibilities call attention to themselves. Just when the spell is about to get binding, something goes clunk. (PG-13)