Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif. Written by Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman (based on the novel by Ken Kesey). Directed by Miloš Forman.

I first saw Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in eleventh grade, when my Modern American Fiction teacher taught a unit on antiheroes. I liked it rather a lot, but I’ve seen a lot of movies in the years since, and in 1986 I was unaware of this film’s status as one of the greatest of all time. Since I didn’t remember it being quite that terrific, I thought I’d see it again, interested in how my views might have changed. Also, my father recently spent a week in a hospital and I remember warning him to be cooperative lest they assign Nurse Ratched to him. He responded, “I believe I’ve already been introduced to her.” And because I couldn’t remember much about her, I thought I should give it a look.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred from an Oregon prison, where he is serving time for statutory rape, to a mental institution, where he hopes to serve the rest of his sentence in relative ease. He has faked symptoms of mental illness, so from the moment he arrives he carries an air of being above the fray.

McMurphy quickly stirs up some trouble, pushing back against some of the administrative policy and treatment procedure. Although he says he’s there to cooperate, he butts heads with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who is strict about routine and who tolerates very little nonsense from the patients, who seem to be afraid of her. McMurphy sees that the patients—many of whom are there of their own volition and can leave any time they want—are being suppressed by routine and policy, that Ratched’s rules keep them from being fully men, which many are willing to accept. He seems bent on circumventing her emasculating treatment and awakening their dormant manhood. Looking past their aberrant behaviors, McMurphy connects with his fellow patients as human beings, and this connection has a more therapeutic effect than any of Ratched’s sharing groups, curfews, or medications.

I’m interpreting this my way, of course, and perhaps someone else might see things differently, depending on his or her views of establishment and rebellion, or order and chaos, or established ways and new ways, or the government and the people. There’s a lot of room for all of that and I don’t think my takeaway is necessarily right.

And that’s what makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a great film. Yes, there are stellar performances by everyone involved (it was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, including awards for Forman, Nicholson, and Fletcher). Forman definitely has something to say, but he presents his case in such a way that even if you agree with all the evidence, you might come away with a different verdict, because for all her steely-spined primness, Ratched does seem to have the patients’ interests at heart.

Why don’t these patients exercise their right to leave if they believe they’re being repressed? Maybe they’ve been misled or maybe the safety of the hospital is exactly what they need, however that safety might be provided. And in the film’s climactic moment, McMurphy orders something that would easily be defined today as rape, something we can’t just wave away, especially given his criminal history.

The film has its flaws for sure. It shoots for some big-picture stuff that it can’t quite hit, but it’s an admirable effort. Restrict it to big ideas in a smaller-picture view, and it works a lot better. Less universalism and more here’s-an-examplism is probably the better way to apply it.

I was deeply moved by this film, in a way I was not at age sixteen. The performances are amazing and the themes are provocative. And while I see Nicholson as much more than a rebel, now that I am older than the character he plays, I also see Ratched not as an old bag, but as a pretty, middle-aged, hard-working social worker, now that I’m around her age. It makes me wonder what other films, viewed by my teenaged self, need to be watched with my middle-aged eyes.


Review: Terms of Endearment

Terms of Endearment (1983)
Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Jeff Daniels, Danny DeVito. Written by James L. Brooks (based on the novel by Larry McMurtry). Directed by James L. Brooks.

If you don’t know already that Terms of Endearment is a tear-jerker, I’ve just spoiled that aspect for you, but that’s all I’ll spoil. I swear. It’s all I knew about the film, aside from its status as a beloved, decorated movie based on a novel by Larry McMurtry. I almost forgot that as I laughed my way through the first half, but of course it was always kind of hanging over everything, so that the laughter felt borrowed, like collateral against what I know is coming, even though I didn’t really know what was coming.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson are wonderful, Nicholson at his brashest and crassest, MacLaine at her most uptight and most mischievous. In the years following this film, Nicholson often played characters who were exaggerations of this persona, so it’s nice to see it at what I imagine is peak Nicholson. MacLaine, too, seems to have been given over-the-top, eccentric old-lady roles based on her character here (with the most notable exception her great work in Bernie), and it’s possible this is peak MacLaine as well. Their back-and-forth by itself is worth the rental price.

The Nicholson-MacLaine dynamic relegates Debra Winger to supporting status, even though she’s really the central actress. Her relationship with her mother seems to be the center of the film, but I had difficulty figuring Winger’s character out. It’s difficult to figure out why she does the things she does, and the story doesn’t convince us enough one way or another whether it’s because of her mother, because of her husband (Jeff Daniels), or because of a quirky, free-spirit personality. It’s really the film’s weakness, and it’s a disappointment because Winger herself is quite good.

Here’s a mini shout-out to John Lithgow, whose pathetic bank manager character is so well performed that I wanted to see a movie about him and his family.

Terms of Endearment is a good movie, totally worth seeing again and possibly again for its solid performances and the joy of Nicholson and MacLaine. Its problem is that it toys with greatness and doesn’t give enough of an effort to get there.


Review: About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

I’ve often said About Schmidt is an utterly forgettable movie, mostly because although I saw it in the theater in 2002 when it was released, I could remember almost nothing about it. There were a Winnebago and a naked Kathy Bates in a hot tub, but if a third plot element were the question in Final Jeopardy, I’d have gone home a loser. So in my review of (and catchup on) Alexander Payne’s directorial oeuvre, I was looking forward to this one because it seemed almost like seeing something new, while also not looking forward to it because I was pretty sure my not remembering it was precisely the correct response.

I was right on both expectations. By itself, it is a forgettable film, setting up some kind of emotional equation it never solves, like those reactions in tenth-grade chemistry you have to balance, connecting this oxygen atom to that hydrogen atom and making it all even out. Examined as part of Payne’s filmography, which was my intention this time, it’s a lot more interesting. Although plot-wise it has almost nothing in common with Election, the film Payne directed just before it, or Sideways, the film he directed just after, it has interesting thematic and film-making similarities.

Primary among them is Payne’s interest in representing his home state of Nebraska in a way that seems to be uniquely his. The opening shot is mimicry of the first moments in Citizen Kane: from a distance, across a vast, flat cityscape, we see a lone high-rise. Subsequent shots bring the building closer, seen from different angles but always with the tower occupying the same place in the frame, growing larger and larger, until we are inside the building and see a bored Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) at his empty desk, watching the second-hand of the clock tick off the final moments of his professional career. Omaha is no Xanadu, and Warren R. Schmidt is no Charles Foster Caine.

Matthew Broderick in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt all play small men living small lives, the first two in the middle, and the last near his end. We drop into Jim McAllister’s life just as he’s making his idiotic choices, into Miles Raymond’s sometime after, as he’s still dealing with the consequences, and into Warren Schmidt’s as he discovers that his mistakes were made long ago, without his being aware of them, as he earned professional success only to discover that a life’s work has amounted to nearly nothing. It’s a good idea, but I have difficulty understanding Payne’s intention. How am I meant to feel about Schmidt’s journey and destination, by the time this film concludes?
(spoilers in this paragraph only)

Schmidt expresses his concern about his daughter’s marriage, in a well-done scene with Hope Davis, where she says something like, “Oh, now you care about my decisions?” We don’t know exactly what’s come between her and her father, but it’s easy enough to imagine that it’s the stuff that happens to many of us in our own families. So far, so good. But then Schmidt offers a toast at the reception, at first a bit awkward, but then gracious and seemingly heartfelt. Are we supposed to take his words at face value? It’s difficult to tell whether he’s had a change of heart or is merely playing a part. Cut to the final scene, where he’s sitting home alone at his desk, certain that his life has amounted to nothing. He’s been writing letters to Ndugu, a young boy he’s sponsoring through one of those charities, and there is a letter from his teacher, telling him how much Ndugu has appreciated his gifts, along with one of Ndugu’s drawings, a crude representation of a man holding hands with a boy. Schmidt begins to sob, and the film is over.

Is this a moment of despair, or is it a moment of redemption? I could tolerate not knowing if there were evidence enough to support either conclusions, but there isn’t. I suppose the stronger case can be made for despair, but there’s been enough good interaction during Schmidt’s trip to imply that he’s got a lot of interesting living to do, if he decides to live it. Another possibility is that Schmidt is finally taking a moment to grieve properly, but I think he has his moment the night he sleeps on the roof of his RV, and our last image of him should be more positive.

Now that I’ve seen this film three times (once in the theater, twice on DVD) I’m much fonder of it than I once was, but it’s really no better a film. Seven years ago, when I first set up my Criticker account, I ranked it 66/100; I think 60 is more like it now.