In the minutes before a critics' screening of Stanley & Iris, I was thumbing through the program notes and read a quote from Jane Fonda, one of the film's stars, that filled me with dread. "I'm a believer that movies can make a difference," declared Fonda, who claimed that Stanley & Iris – in which she plays a recent widow who tutors an illiterate cook played by Robert De Niro – was a movie that could both "entertain and, perhaps, change things a bit."
There's nothing wrong with Fonda's idea in theory. Socially conscious films about everything from alcoholism (The Lost Weekend) to autism (Rain Man) dot the Oscar honor roll. But the packaging of disabilities for mass box-office consumption has become an alarming trend. For every My Left Foot, which treats cerebral palsy with unflinching honesty, there are other films that exploit real afflictions. Last year alone, blindness and deafness (See No Evil, Hear No Evil), mental illness (The Dream Team) and senility (Dad) became fodder for farce, while infertility (Immediate Family), disfigurement (Johnny Handsome) and seizures (Steel Magnolias) provided the bubbles for soap opera.
Credit Stanley & Iris for its good intentions. Director Martin Ritt and the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. are justly celebrated movie muckrakers. This trio has taken on greed (Hud), prejudice (Conrack) and union busting (Norma Rae). All three films were preachy, but each succeeded by starting with a solid foundation of character. Stanley & Iris properly bemoans a devastating statistic: 27 million Americans over the age of seventeen cannot read or write. But the characters in the film don't embody the issue, they merely illustrate it.
Part of the problem is the source material. The screenplay is based on Pat Barker's 1983 novel Union Street, about working-class life in Great Britain. Somehow the novel has been transformed into a story of a New England widow named Iris (Fonda) who frosts cakes to support her two children, played by Martha Plimpton and Harley Cross. As for Stanley, the cook in the bakery where Iris works, he didn't figure in the novel at all. He's a script excuse to introduce the topic of illiteracy. The writers might have done better starting from scratch, but that's asking for logic. Back in 1959, Ritt, Ravetch and Frank collaborated on a film version of the William Faulkner classic The Sound and the Fury that rearranged the novel's intricate time sequence and changed the central character of Quentin from a man to a woman. Purists are still having conniptions over that one.
Literacy experts are likely to be similarly nonplused by Stanley & Iris. Fired when his boss learns he can't tell the difference between labels that say Sugar and Roach Powder, Stanley turns to Iris for help. The lessons are a struggle at first. Stanley rages and gets drunk but eventually toes the line. He wins Iris, finds a good job in Detroit and begins a new life. Happy ending. The painstaking slowness and setbacks of the adult learning process are minimized. This is entertainment.
Surprisingly, it's not even much of that. In his efforts to touch an emotional chord, Ritt stacks the deck. Fonda's Iris is a paragon; she loved her late husband so much that she feels guilty just thinking about sleeping with Stanley, and she stays generous even when her sister (a wasted Swoosie Kurtz) and unemployed brother-in-law (Jamey Sheridan) move in and mooch off her meager earnings. At one point, she tells Stanley that her dream is to go to a fancy hotel in Boston and order éclairs from room service. When Iris gets her wish, she practically swoons at the sight of the large hotel bathroom. "They've even got a scale in there," she exclaims. "I'm not getting on it" The line wins an easy laugh. And no wonder: The svelte Workout Queen is pretending to be average and overweight. Fonda's movie-star image keeps poking through this performance. Donald McAlpine's soft-focus photography lends her the luminous glow Glenn Close had in The Natural. Fonda wears it like a halo.
De Niro fares better by cutting deeper. In the scenes in which he's unencumbered by dialogue, De Niro's haunted face shows the hurt and shame of a man who can't read a newspaper, a baseball score or a street sign. But Ritt hurries these scenes, as if he senses the audience's impatience. Instead, the script concerns itself with setting up Stanley as a saint worthy of the virtuous Iris. Stanley never learned his ABC's, because his salesman father, played by Feodor Chaliapin, took his son out of school and on the road. Now Stanley supports his dying parent by cleaning toilets and doing other menial jobs. At home, Stanley spends his spare time devising inventions to express his intelligence without using words.
Since Fonda and De Niro fail to generate any sparks, the script keeps announcing how the relationship is progressing. Iris: "Stanley, I think you and me are getting to be friends." Stanley: "I like you, Iris, just about as much as I love you." It's old-fashioned, manipulative writing, and Ritt offers direction to match. When Stanley walks Iris to her bus, obviously wanting to ask her for help, he gets out the words "Teach me to read" just as the bus door slams in his face.
By the end of this hollow and unconvincing fairy tale, Stanley – who has applied for a patent on one of his inventions – is a walking recruitment poster for literacy. "Iris," he says, "anything is possible." So it is, at least in this celebration of get-rich-quick aspirations, which shoehorns a serious issue into a formulaic Hollywood love story. And Fonda thought Stanley & Iris might change things. How? By treating literacy as a shortcut to success rather than as a worthy end in itself? By ignoring those illiterates who can't find a teacher-lover, a better job or a method for bouncing back from shame, frustration, isolation and poverty? It's not necessary to be able to read and write to detect the dishonesty at this film's core.