Not that long ago I finally saw Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and fell in love with Ellen Burstyn. She does wonderful work in a film that refuses to deal in stereotypes or simple solutions. I was particularly relieved to find that the threatened Hollywood happy ending failed to materialize. Alice does find herself a place to live, but it is not in the never-never land she had been aiming for. A real character in a real world, she finds that happiness can also be found within a compromise.
And so I looked for more films with Ellen Burstyn in them, and found The Spitfire Grill.
At first, it seemed like a movie about real people. It features a singular dearth of pretty faces, which is always a relief, and the regional accents are excellent, but none of the characters were given much of a chance to develop. Ms. Burstyn works overtime to make something of Hannah, the owner of the grill, but the script doesn’t give her much to work with. Then there is Nahum, who despises his wife and is suspicious of everyone else. There is a postmistress who reads people’s mail and is suspicious of everyone. There is a restaurant full of townies who all seem to be suspicious of something or other. It was all the least bit suspicious. Still, it seemed like a nice, quiet film that wasn’t going to go all Hollywood on me.
When suddenly it took a nosedive. The plot, you see, required that Percy, the ex-convict who has come to make a new life in Gilead, Maine, be wrongly suspected of stealing $200,000 from Hannah. What happens is that Nahum, suspecting an imminent theft, himself opens Hannah’s safe and removes the money, which is in a metal cash box. Because the plot requires it, he empties the cash box into an inconveniently huge canvas bag. Picture a mail sack. Now, we’ve seen this mail sack before. See, Hannah’s son Eli went off to Vietnam twenty-some years ago and, as far as the townspeople know, never returned, whereas actually he did return, but suffers from PTSD so badly that he has been living ever since in the woods, within easy walking distance of town, in a shelter worthy of the Swiss Family Robinson that somehow nobody has ever noticed. Every night, Hannah fills the mail sack with canned goods and sets it out by the woodpile so that Eli can come to get it. Hannah, however, has hurt her leg so badly that lately this has been Percy’s job. How the mail sack finds its way home every day, we don’t know. Why the mail sack lives next to the safe instead of in the kitchen where the canned goods are, we don’t know.
Anyway, after Nahum dumps the cash out of the convenient box into the huge bag, he hears footsteps approaching and promptly leaves the bag in the middle of the floor and hides behind the safe. The footsteps belong to Percy, who has come down to put Eli’s food out. She drags the mail sack into the kitchen and fills it as usual, somehow not noticing the $200,000, and sets it by the woodpile. Nahum observes all this, and then waits around until Eli hauls the sack away, then goes home to bed.
What’s going on here? Nahum’s prime motivation had been to save the money, but the plot required him, instead, to perform a series of actions that didn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Plot, once again, has triumphed over character.
Fortunately, at that point the movie is almost over. Cops and dogs are called in to track Eli, Percy drowns while trying to find him, Nahum redeems himself by admitting that it was all his fault. The final scene is total Hollywood. The town is filled with happy families laughing in the sunshine. Percy’s death has brought balm to Gilead, which will never be suspicious again.
Now, I have nothing against uplifting movies, but I do feel that stories that claim to take place in the real world ought to make some sense. Based on the comments about Spitfire on IMDB.com, I seem to be in a minority. But if, like me, you prefer to have your happy endings come about without requiring you to switch off all the logic circuits in your brain, see Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore instead.