I have a confession to make. I’m not a big fan of Jack Nicholson. There are a handful of his movies I like a lot, but it’s often in spite of his involvement rather than because of it. A unstated side effect of this marathon was supposed to be for me to gain a better appreciation for him. So far, it isn’t working very well. I’ve actually started watching Five Easy Pieces before, and didn’t finish it (I’ve forgotten why, but probably some combination of being distracted and lack of interest). This time I did finish it, and I can find a good bit to like about it, but I still don’t “get it” the way I was hoping.
Nicholson is Bobby Dupea, an oil-rig worker who lives with his shrill but well-meaning girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), in between killing time bowling with buddies and picking up other girls to break up the monotony of his life. As the film goes on, we discover bit by bit that Bobby wasn’t born a working-class stiff – rather, he comes from a well-to-do family of musicians and artists, who he turned his back on years earlier, feeling pressured and trapped by their expectations of him. When his sister contacts him to let him know of their father’s declining health, he travels back home to visit with Rayette in tow, creating a tense juxtaposition when she and his family meet.
There are a lot of things I quite liked – the scene where Bobby, stuck in traffic on his way to work, jumps out of his car to play a piano being hauled in a flatbed trailer is fantastic, and a great way to start peeling back the layers of Bobby’s background. It’s the first sign that there’s more to him than just a discontented laborer. The scenes contrasting Rayette with his family are pretty well-done, too, as she tries to present herself as well as she can and they try to be kind yet wordlessly reveal their disappointment with Bobby’s life choices. Honestly, I really liked Rayette in the film, and the fact that Bobby put her in that situation and didn’t really stand up for her bothered me a lot.
And that’s what really kept the film from becoming on I liked – there wasn’t anything I liked or respected about Bobby. I thought it was interesting on some level that he had left his privileged life, and on some level I understood why, but he didn’t have any drive or motivation to do anything else with his life, either. I understand that his choice at the end was consistent with his character and probably right for the narrative, but it didn’t make me like or care about him as a person any more, and what little sympathy I had started to gather for him dissipated immediately. Despite her general dimwittedness, I had a lot more respect for Rayette than I did for Bobby.
Now, I’m sure Bobby’s dislikableness is intentional. At one point, a character says of Bobby: “If a man has no love or respect for himself, no love for family or anything, how can he ask for love in return?” I don’t think it’s really expected that I respect Bobby, since he clearly has little to no respect to give in return. But then I’m still left with very little in the film to hold on to, since it’s almost relentlessly about him. I don’t always have a problem with films about dislikable characters, but they need to give me something to care about, or do something so cinematically interesting that I have something else to focus on. Otherwise I can admit somewhat begrudgingly that I appreciate the film, and I do appreciate this one, especially certain parts of it, but I really didn’t like it much at all. Maybe that’s enough. (Also that whole famous scene with the chicken sandwich? Is that supposed to be funny? Because, it isn’t funny.)