- Movie Rating -

Cannery Row (1982)

| February 12, 1982

It always drives me nuts when I see characters on the screen who come from a particular time and place, whose form and function in this world seems so specific and yet I never for one moment believe that they are living, breathing human beings.  I hate it when the drama is undercut by actors who are so quirky and so colorful that they seem to be just actors in costumes reciting dialogue.

That, in a nutshell, is my problem with Cannery Row, based on a 1940 novel by John Steinbeck whose tendency in that book was to paint his characters in broad colors.  He didn’t necessarily make heroes out of the bums and drifters and dreamers who lived in and around the canneries and fisheries in Monterey, California in the midst of World War II but he didn’t exactly give them a down-to-earth quality either.  The novel was populated with types: the gang of bums who sleep in drain pipes, the hooker with the heart of gold, the kindly old madame and, of course, the brainy golden-haired guy who is goin’ places.

The know-it-all is played in a solid performance by Nick Nolte as Doc, a former big-league pitcher who, for long-delayed secret reasons, gave up the game and moved to the docks of Monterey.  Now, he occupies his laboratory studying marine life, which he views as being not too far removed from human life.  Somewhere, at some point, it seems that he will make a great big discovery.  Someday.

Doc is just about the only thing in this story that comes close to being a real human being. But he is surrounded by those movie types and their unreality interrupts his down-to-earth quality.  His closest relationship is with a local prostitute named Suzy (Debra Winger), a sweet girl who kinda likes this egghead.  And thus, the rest of Cannery Row seems dedicated to the supporting players getting these two kids together.

It is those supporting players that seem to sink this movie.  They seem to exist in a weird time warp where colorful characters can solve anything, and whose dire circumstances are washed away by their high spirits.  Particularly galling is the gaggle of drunks who sleep in the streets but whose high spirited demeanor only exists to pep up the boy-hero.  Nevermind that drunks who live on the docks as they are usually have to deal with hunger, disease, crime and exposure.  These guys are just happy all the time. They are the colorful movie drunks that you expect to burst into song.  And the romance too is sweet in movie terms, not the terms that real lovers would have had to combat in a situation like this.

I have been around people who have gotten dreamy about this film, and maybe I can’t blame them.  We sometimes wish that the movies were more like real life, that all situations were cured by a simple romance and a dream that someday ‘I’ll make it big and get outta this one-horse town’ but Cannery Row exists in the valley between the dreamy romance of a movie world and the vast reality that Steinbeck would create in “The Grapes of Wrath”.  You can’t really have it both ways, but boy does this movie try.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1982) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy, Drama