Fourteen-year-old Homer is the messenger of death in Ithaca, an adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel The Human Comedy. Homer delivers telegrams in the early ‘40s that begin with “The Department of War regrets” — you know the rest.
Filmed previously as The Human Comedy in 1943, this rebirth is almost a casebook study of how not to transpose “literature” to film. A heartfelt yet sodden directorial debut by Meg Ryan, Ithaca is wordy and static. Saroyan’s novel was a sharp smear on the fragility of life in a world of wild extremes and shifting circumstances. Unfortunately, the film’s drama is enervated by incessant voiceover, background radio, newsreels, out-loud letter readings and other noise. While it reunites Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, which might prove alluring in ads, Hanks appears only in a tiny book-end role.
The movie is further deadened by numerous inner monologues as wet-behind-the-ears Homer (Alex Neustaedter) rides his bike and ponders serious matters. Homer’s musings are not the normal, adolescent-boy concerns (sex, school, sports), but rather speculations on subject matter that could constipate a graduate philosophy seminar, or goose a preacher to a day-long sermon. More engagingly, Homer does aspire to run the 220 hurdles in town-record time.
While wordy, Ithaca is nearly bereft of everyday dialogue: Erik Jendresen’s script, focusing on the philosophical queries, crushes the human intrigue. Amid these drones, nothing feels or sounds natural, which is particularly egregious since Saroyan’s book imparted a real sense of place (his hometown of Fresno, changed to Ithaca for the narrative).
One of the few moments the film actually entertains comes when the elderly alcoholic telegrapher imparts sage, crusty wisdom to eager-beaver Homer. On this plus side, not only have the filmmakers used the historical back-road sites of Virginia for their filming, they have picked up the formidable talents of local-yokel Sam Shepard. Costumed in Harold Lloyd-type period glasses and swiveling around in his telegrapher’s chair, Shepard infuses the proceedings with some comic relief and perspective. His bits stand out: Shepard’s soft, creaky voice, mixed with intermittent high-pitched punctuation, give you the feeling that this guy could do a helluva W.C. Fields. Unfortunately, those kinds of attention drifts are unintended but necessary to endure the rest of what’s onscreen.
There are other juicy moments, especially revolving around charming towhead tyke Ulysses (Spencer Howard), Homer’s younger brother. Meanwhile, Ryan’s sinewy performance as the boys’ mother conveys a sharp-edged life of pain and joy.
Visually, the film is too tightly wound: Ryan’s character positioning is glaringly stagey, while the film’s overall look is drab. Its production and costume palette consists of dull, earth tones, which are further dulled by cinematographer Andrew Dunn’s murky lensing. On the near-plus side, John Mellencamp’s string-swept score grates and swirls, both ascendant and funereal, nicely amplifying the characters’ tribulations.
A Co-Op Entertainment, Apple Lane Prods., Pilothouse Pictures, Playtone, Bron Studios production
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Sam Shepard, Jack Quaid, Hamish Linklater, Alex Neustaedter, Spencer Howard
Director: Meg Ryan
Screenwriter: Erik Jendresen, based on a novel by William Saroyan
Producers: Janet Brenner, Laura Ivey, Erik Jendresen
Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn
Editor: John F. Lyons
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Composer: John Mellencamp
No rating, 85 minutes