Boutique label Twilight Time has added director Martin Ritt's Stanley & Iris to their Limited Edition Blu-ray series (only 3,000 units pressed). Just because the film has been largely forgotten over the last 27 years doesn't mean it isn't worth revisiting, if primarily as a curiosity. There are some nicely understated moments between De Niro and co-star Jane Fonda in this kitchen-sink, slice-of-life drama. About halfway through, however, it becomes painfully obvious that Ritt (working from a screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, based extremely loosely on the novel Union Street by Pat Barker) doesn't have much of a story to tell.
Iris (Fonda) is one of several unsanitary women working at a commercial bakery in a downtrodden Connecticut town. Seriously, she and her coworkers are quite disgusting in their workplace habits. When we first see them in action, they're using their bare hands to spread frosting on cakes. One of Iris' coworkers hocks loogies on unwrapped muffins. Iris is something of a utility woman at the plant—one day she's on frosting duty, the next she's loading muffins into boxes, the next she's piping jelly filling into doughnuts. She's recently widowed, left with two teens (one of whom, played by Martha Plimpton, is pregnant). Plus she's got her sister Sharon (Swoosie Kurtz) and brother-in-law Joe (Jamie Sheridan, playing an abusive drunk) living with her. Times are tough—Joe bought beer with the money Sharon was socking away for a cosmetic dentistry procedure.
That's enough for a movie all its own and Ritt leaves a bunch of these characters twisting in the wind. Did we need to know Joe beats his wife? Does teen Kelly's pregnancy add anything meaningful to the story? The answer, sadly, is no. The focus shifts to Stanley (De Niro), a cook working in the bakery's cafeteria. He and Iris don't know each other but, after Stanley helps scare off a thief who swipes Iris' purse, they soon realize they haunt the same places. Soon they're bumping into each other everywhere. They use the same shoe repairman, the same laundromat, etc. A friendship develops.
What's the crux? Well, turns out Stanley is illiterate. While on a break at the bakery, Iris asks Stanley for a Tylenol. He hands her a bottle of Rolaids. She points out his error and he proceeds to hand her wrong bottle after wrong bottle. Really? I mean, really? This 45-year-old guy, who has successfully held a job and provided for his aging father (Feodor Chaliapin Jr., delivering a touching performance near the end of his life), never learned to visually recognize the difference between a Tylenol bottle and a Rolaids bottle? Is he color blind too? Has he never had a headache in his life?
Minor detail maybe, but it does exemplify a strain of unintentional comedy that runs throughout Stanley & Iris. Spoiler alert: Iris winds up getting Stanley fired by outing him as illiterate in front of his boss. "What if you get the ingredients mixed up?" Not an unreasonable concern from his boss, given that Stanley can't apparently use visuals to tell medications apart (luckily, as he tells the administrator at his father's nursing home, his elderly dad doesn't take any meds—too convenient, if you ask me).
Instead of harboring an understandable grudge against Iris, Stanley enlists her as a tutor in order to learn how to read and write. And he proves to be a rather uncouth pupil, turning up drunk at her house, failing to do his homework, and expressing an ulterior motive (when she's a bit flustered after he admits he's been trying to get in her pants since the moment they met, the charmer emphatically states "It's going to happen"—how romantic).
Stanley & Iris is not funny, but it's hard not to laugh sometimes at hits sheer clumsiness. There was a lot of talk at the time about De Niro's perceived "inability" to play average Joes. Critics often repeated the claim that he only excelled when playing "psychopaths." Not true. Hadn't they seen Bang the Drum Slowly, New York, New York, The Deer Hunter, to name but a few of De Niro's less-than-looney characters? Of course they had, but it made better copy to write De Niro off as the actor who plays "crazy guys" (I mean, come on, the Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull is kind of an a-hole but even he's no psycho).
The reason De Niro makes virtually no impact as Stanley is not necessarily down to his performance. It's that Stanley is an irredeemably boring sad-sack daddy's boy. Ritt gives us no discernible reason to give a rip about this guy's trials and tribulations. Like I said, it's a good thing his dad had no health problems, otherwise Stanley probably would've wound up poisoning him. Fonda has an easier time making something out of the forthright Iris, whose domestic complications could've made a better movie. In fact, it's Fonda who sells the movie by infusing her unglamourous, working-class character with a streak of intelligence. It's unfortunate Stanley & Iris doesn't allow her to find a more suitable companion.
Twilight Time's Blu-ray gives us the high definition debut of Academy Award-nominated (for Moulin Rouge!) Donald McAlpine's deliberately earthy, slightly-drab cinematography. Aside from an occasional fleck of print debris, this is a solid transfer. Audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0, with an isolated track of John Williams' quiet score. Film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman recorded a chatty commentary track—they provide a wealth of analysis and production notes, making this an entertaining, informative listen.
Visit Screen Archives or the official Twilight Time website for ordering information.