That old growing-up-and-moving-out thing is the coldest of dead horses, and anyone who can actually shoot a little life into the carcass deserves a round of applause from kids of all ages in the balcony. Enter Matt Reeves, born on Long Island, raised in Santa Monica and a moviemaker since age eight, when his grandfather gave him his first wind-up camera. The Pallbearer is Reeves's directorial debut, and "auspicious" doesn't begin to cover this smart, witty, unpredictable comedy about an arrested adolescent grappling with the belated onset of adulthood.
Appropriately enough, the bright germ of this intermittently dark tale lies in the suicide of another young man we never meet, one Bill Abernathy. Early on, Bill leaves the car running inside the garage. Soon afterward, the hero of our story, a bewildered Brooklynite named Tom Thompson (David Schwimmer), is notified of the funeral of his high school friend. But there's a catch. Tom doesn't even remember Bill Abernathy, and neither do his two best friends--a harried bridegroom-to-be, Brad (Michael Rapaport), and a suave success with a secret, Scott (Michael Vartan).
Little matter. A bumbling, jobless 25-year-old who's still living in his mother's house with his old skateboards and team pennants is bound to remain impressionable: Before he knows it, poor Tom is not only putting on a black suit for the funeral of a guy he never knew, he's delivering the eulogy. That ordeal alone, full of halts and excruciating silences and hand-over-mouth giggles from Tom's friends in the back pews, is worth the price of admission. And in the hands of the TV-sitcom crowd, that would be about the limit. But young Reeves does more than give us a case of mistaken identity, throw in a few black comic yuks and close it up. Instead, he expands The Pallbearer into a bittersweet farewell to youth itself, turning the movie's very title into a splendid double entendre.
As Tom, leading man-child Schwimmer (who plays the wisecracking, romantic Ross on NBC's Friends) could be the movies' most agitated college graduate since, well, The Graduate. A slack-jawed sad sack, he's got a clinging mother (the wonderful Carol Kane) who would keep him in his toy-strewn room at the head of the stairs forever. He's hopelessly in love with a girl named Julie DeMarco (Gwyneth Paltrow), who never gave him a glance in high school and, like everyone else, has mistaken him for someone else now. Tom's even got his own Mrs. Robinson, in the person of slinky Barbara Hershey, who puts in a nuanced, steamy, remarkably effective performance complete with blond wig. Does it make lunatic sense that Hershey's volatile Ruth Abernathy is also the grieving mother of the dead boy Tom never knew? Sure does.
The Pallbearer is full of useful and charming conceits. For one thing, it reinvents tough, tattered old Brooklyn as a leafy village full of songbirds and sunlit front porches--Everytown, USA. For another, it tells us that Tom Thompson, who can't kiss a girl without knocking foreheads or get through a job interview at an architectural office without collapsing into a fit of junior high school stuttering, doesn't know who he is any better than he knew Bill Abernathy. Fact is, that's the real drama and the real comedy here--a coming-of-age well beyond the time when most young men come of age. Like Dustin Hoffman in Mike Nichols's classic, Tom Thompson is a boy poured into a man's body, and slowly he grows into it. Happily, the mourners at the wake for his adolescence know how to laugh as well as cry.
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Not surprisingly, you can see some conventions coming a mile away. The jilted older woman is bound to make a fierce comic shambles of the restaurant lunch where young Tom meets Julie's parents; there's a bachelor party for friend Brad with the usual supply of strippers and drunks; there's a wedding scene that signals the degree to which everyone's moved on. But Reeves and his co-writer, Jason Katims, aren't dishing up cliches. Like some other able chroniclers of Generation X anxiety--Slackers' Richard Linklater and Flirting With Disaster's David O. Russell are two who come to mind--they spice their characters' deepest traumas (love, career, friendship, parenthood) with nourishing absurdity. When Tom Thompson drops the handles on poor Bill's casket because the girl he loves is walking away, the joke cuts two ways: He's trying to keep his confused soul alive even though the guy inside the dark box has failed. When he looks glumly on the boyhood license plate nailed forever to his door--"TOM'S ROOM," it reads--he wonders if he'll ever allow himself to escape. But in the end, the filmmakers lock his mom inside the room, a jape only a nimble mind could conceive.
The Pallbearer is not perfect, but it is certainly "auspicious," the newest piece of evidence that a new generation of American moviemakers--raised on TV and rock, wounded by baby-boomer divorce, justly uncertain about the mysteries of the future--have turned in their wind-up cameras for the real thing and for real life. Like Tom Thompson, they're growing up and moving out.
The Pallbearer. Screenplay by Jason Katims and Matt Reeves. Directed by Matt Reeves. With David Schwimmer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Barbara Hershey, Carol Kane and Michael Rapaport.