Monday, December 28, 2015

Can't I just be myself here? - T.R. Baskin (1971)

T.R. Baskin (1971) is one of those films that critics seems to hate and that no one really knows about.  My opinion is of the contrary.  I think it’s a very entertaining movie worth seeing!  The character in this film is unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  She is a confident woman with a sense of absurdist humor who also exists as an outsider.  On the surface, this is a film about the difficulties of a single person moving to a big city.  Instead of finding glamour and success, she finds the opposite.  What makes this story different though is that we never feel sorry for this character - the intention seems for the viewer to identify with her.

T.R. Baskin is played by a young Candice Bergen (most well known for starring in the sitcom Murphy Brown).  Watching this in retrospect of seeing Murphy Brown, you might go into this thinking that this is an early 70s women’s liberation thing.  About a woman coming to the city, starting off small, and then taking over the company.   The character of T.R. Baskin, as played by Bergen, certainly seems capable of that.  But that’s really not what we have here.  The film is puzzling because this looks like it might be the setup, but then the movie starts with T.R. being propositioned.  It is presented very of matter of fact though, without any sort of scandal.  T.R.'s attitude always seems to be - "I'll give it a shot, okay, what the hell".

She is a woman in her mid-twenties with a very honest perspective on life.  She refuses to play games and seems to see through people and the sometimes ridiculous ideals and standards they place on themselves.  She is a bit of a contradiction though - as T.R.’s outlook seems to get in the way of her having any sort of happiness or success.  She is a complex character because of her simplicity.  She is an outsider not because she tries to be bizarre, but because she seems weird to others.  Why?  Only for the fact that she does not try to be anyone but herself. 

The story is about when T.R. moves  to Chicago.  We know little of T.R.’s background.  She has left a home with her caring parents and set out on her own.   She has no great pretensions.  She gets an apartment, a job an office.  Only: Her apartment is a dump.  Her job is boring.  The guys she dates are jerks.  It's as if being propositioned were no different from other small sacrifices that one needs to make just to get by in the big city.
Told in a flashback style, the film starts near the end of the sequence of events.  T.R. meets up with Jack Mitchell (Peter Boyle).  He is a married man from Utica who is in Chicago for the weekend looking to meet a woman.  An old college friend named Larry (James Caan) gives Jack T.R.’s number.

When T.R. receives the call from Jack, she is reluctant.  She does not seem interested but possibly just agrees to meet him out of sheer curiosity.  After arriving at his apartment, the two discuss life.  Jack feels like she is making fun of him.  To reassure him that she is not, she takes off her clothes and waits in his bed.  Jack changes in the bathroom and gets into bed with her.  He kisses her, but she is disinterested and Jack realizes he is unable to perform.  T.R. finds the situation amusing and just laughs.  Probably the least sexy and unromantic bedroom scene ever filmed.

Instead of leaving, this becomes a sort of icebreaker.  While still in bed, the two discuss their dreams and aspirations and how, in their own way, they are both lonely.  We become sympathetic towards these characters, as they do to each other, even though it is far from any sort of romance.

In the flashback sequence it is revealed that T.R. met Larry (Caan’s character) one night while leaving a bad date.  T.R. notices Larry at a restaurant, stops in and sits with him.  Larry is a divorced children’s book editor and the two seem to hit it off and have a similar sense of humor.
They return to Larry’s apartment for more conversation.  There is a chemistry and the two make love.

The next morning, as she is leaving, T.R. assumes that Larry has mistaken her for a prostitute as she finds money he left her in her jacket pocket.

The viewer then has to take a bit of a leap.  Has T.R. actually decided to become a prostitute, instead of a typist, and this is why she is with Jack Mitchell?  Or is T.R. just herself, a typist, who is simply curious and bored when she receives a call from Jack?

The film is unusual because T.R. is always making the decisions in the film.  She is always what seems like one step ahead of all the characters in the movie, including the men.  At the end of the film, Jack asks her if she is happy.  She avoids answering the question.  “I don’t like to think about that.”

At the film’s conclusion, she returns home, calls her mom, and has a momentary breakdown.  Crying on the telephone, she assures her parents that everything is alright.

The movie is confusing because the viewer is waiting for something bigger to happen to T.R.  She does not fall in love with the city or find her place at the end of the film.  The point is that we are seeing the world from T.R.’s perspective.  In her eyes, the world is kind of crazy and she is just along for the ride.

If you’ve ever felt this way, then maybe T.R. is a heroine worth identifying with.  She’s crazy in a good way, almost like a character from a Cassavetes film, albeit a little less neurotic.

While the film has some funny moments, it’s more of a drama than a comedy.  Maybe it could be considered a comedy for existentialists?

 It’s all filmed on location in Chicago and the cinematography is great.  A real time capsule of Chicago in the 1970s and its mostly all filmed in real places such as the Carson Pirie Scott department store, the Sherman House Hotel, the First National Bank Building, and OConnells Coffee Shop on Rush Street. 

In a way, the urban setting, time and sense of absurdity reminds me a bit of one of Brain DePalma’s first films: Hi, Mom (1970) . That movie came out around the same time and it's about a  young man (played by Robert De Niro in an early role) who comes to New York City for the first time.  It’s also filmed on locations and also shows a character who never seems to fit in…so he eventually starts making “adult” movies. 

 (Still from DePalma's Hi Mom!, 1970)

T.R. Baskin was an early effort by director Herbert Ross.  He would go on to direct many other great films, my favorites being The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Secret of My Success (1987).  In fact, The Secret of My Success has some similarities to T.R. as this is also, in essence, a movie about an outsider trying to make it for the first time in a big city.  Additionally, it features an 80s business woman/ Murphy Brown type character as the love interest!

The screenplay was written by Peter Hyam when he was still in his twenties.  It’s his first credit but he would go on to write and direct many other films including 2010, the sequel to 2001.

What attracted me to this film in the first place was the chance to see Peter Boyle in another movie.  I always felt like Boyle was a great actor after seeing him in the 1973 made-for-tv movie The Man Who Could Talk To Kids.  But of course I am most familiar with Boyle for his portrayal of Frank Barone on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.  Boyle’s character in T.R. Baskin is far out shined by Bergen’s superb performance.  However, it was still cool to see him in an early role like this.

 Peter Boyle in The Man Who Could Talk to Kids (1973)

I don’t believe T.R. Baskin is currently available on DVD, but I was able to rent it from iTunes for a few bucks.  It’s an odd movie for sure, but in the best way.  Recommended.