- Movie Rating -

Orphans (1987)

| September 18, 1987

I never saw the Lyle Kessler play upon which Orphans is based, but I’ve heard good things.  I understand that it got good notices when it played at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater for the first three months of 1985 and had a successful run off Broadway at the Westside Theater in Manhattan where it ran for the rest of the year.

Never having seen the play myself, I took this knowledge into Alan J. Pakula’s film version and, well, whatever was polarizing the audience in Chicago and New York is clearly not here.  I can only say that the movie is obvious, ridiculous and as dull as a beige room.

The story here seems to wrap up a tale of male bonding that finds two orphans, one reclusive and the other unhinged, pushed to kidnap a local mafia figure who somehow becomes their father figure and apparent Jedi master.  It’s just that ridiculous.

Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson play the brothers (or rather overplay) while Albert Finney provides a sense of calm and reason in a movie that seems to otherwise have none.  Finney is that rare actor who could turn a commercial for Flintstone’s vitamins into high art.

Modine, an actor of great skill that I have thus far liked in Vision QuestBirdy and Full Metal Jacket, plays Treat, a low-level criminal who robs from the rich and gives to the poor – that being his kid brother Philip (Anderson) while living in a rundown crackerbox house in Newark.  Well, I guess it’s Newark.  The atmosphere might suggest that the world is coming to an end.  Who could know?

Their victim is a dapper gangster named Harold who not only escapes their attempts to confine him but inexplicably becomes a father figure to them.  I could perhaps buy this premise if I belived that he had a reason to care, but the template of this story seems to suggest that Harold’s softening attitude toward these boys comes from some kind of celestial destiny (at least that’s what I got).

There’s a thread here that would seem to be missing, and that is the thread that should be engaging to an audience that is suppose to give a rat’s ass.  Kessler adapted his play for the screen but Pakula seems to have forgotten to turn it into a movie.  It offers a story of humanity but forgets that in a story like this there needs to be a center of logic.  We can see the actors acting; we can feel the director directing, and that doesn’t really leave much for us.  Whatever made this a success in Chicago and New York was apparently left there.  I’m not seeing it’s special qualities, at least not in this movie anyway.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Drama