Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Getting a Second Chance

Mike Nichols' "Regarding Henry," which premiered on this day 25 years ago, was about an unlikely second chance — and, in my opinion, it was Harrison Ford's finest performance.

I know, Ford is mostly known for his iconic roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones — and, the more I think of it, Ford's performance in "Regarding Henry" may not have been his finest. Perhaps the better word would be challenging. I thought he did a remarkable job in meeting that challenge.

Ford played Henry, who was, at the start of the movie, a narcissistic lawyer (is that redundant?), too absorbed in his career to pay any attention to his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter (Mikki Allen). But then he got shot in the head when he interrupted a robbery at a convenience store, and the rest of the movie was about his struggle to regain his memory and his mobility.

And, as anyone in such a position would be expected to be, Ford's character was a changed person — not in that near–death experience kind of way in which the victim holds life to be more precious than he did before (and has been overdone on TV and in the movies) but in the sense that he was a completely different person.

(Roger Ebert wrote that Ford's former character had been a "taciturn taskmaster who treats his young daughter as if she were a balky client and his wife as a partner with whom he is friendly but not intimate. After the grievous wound to his brain, Henry recovers into an altogether more pleasant person.")

So, while Ford played a single character, it had two distinct and different personalities and tastes. In effect, they were two entirely different characters.

For example — and on a very basic level — the original Henry loved eggs for breakfast, but the post–shooting Henry didn't care for eggs at all.

On more significant levels, Henry did not recognize anyone he had known before the shooting — his wife, his daughter, his associates at the law firm, his mistress ...

You read that right. Mistress. A young woman from his office. As it turned out, Henry's wife had been having an affair with one of his colleagues. It was that kind of relationship — if you can call it a relationship.

But things were different between them after the shooting. Henry's personality was almost childlike, dependent on and trusting of everyone. When he was told by his family that he loved eggs, he obediently ate the eggs that were given to him — even though the new Henry despised eggs. And he noticed — and appreciated — things he never noticed before, like his surroundings and the people in his life.

His discoveries about the kind of person he had been before the shooting were powerful moments. The movie was filled with powerful moments — yet after I had seen it, I felt that the movie was emotionally manipulative. Ebert appears to have agreed with me.

"There is possibly a good movie to be found somewhere within this story, but Mike Nichols has not found it," Ebert wrote. "This is a film of obvious and shallow contrivance, which aims without apology for easy emotional payoffs and tries to manipulate the audience with plot twists that belong in a sitcom."

It was telling, too, as Ebert observed, that Ford's personality and mental sophistication were conveniently childlike when they needed to be but almost as conniving as before the shooting when it suited the story.

For example, before the shooting, it had been arranged that Henry's daughter would be going to a boarding school — a plan that the family at least attempted to carry out. The daughter was resistant, but Henry talked her into going ahead with it by telling her of a similar childhood experience he had on his first day of school and how everything worked out beautifully.

"That's sweet," his wife said after their daughter went off to join her new classmates. "I didn't know you remembered that."

"I don't," Henry replied.

It was an entertaining movie — but blatantly manipulative. Now, I don't have issues — in general — with manipulation, but it seems to me that you have to do some work to justify its use. As Ebert wrote, "Regarding Henry" went for "easy emotional payoffs." It wasn't above bending the facts (inasmuch as a fictional story can have any facts) to suit the purpose.