Sunday 7 January 2018

Movie Review: The Subject Was Roses (1968)

A family melodrama comprehensively trapped in its stage origins, The Subject Was Roses is overwrought and uneven but never dull.

After serving in World War Two for three years, Timmy Cleary (Martin Sheen) comes back to his parents' Bronx apartment. His father John (Jack Albertson), a businessman, is proud of his returning son, whom he now perceives as a man. Timmy's mother Nettie (Patricia Neal) has more trouble reconnecting with Timmy, and appears to resent the suddenly closer bond between father and son.

It is soon evident to Timmy that the relationship between his parents, always strained as he was growing up, is now under severe duress. Difficult conversations and arguments between the three family members erupt, with the topics of heated debate including drinking, philandering, religion, real estate, long-ago sacrifices, family commitments and broken dreams.

An adaptation of the 1964 Frank D. Gilroy play with Gilroy himself penning the screenplay, The Subject Was Roses is an overclocked three character study. The directorial debut of Ulu Grosbard (who also directed the Broadway production) is filled with the fire and fury of a middle class marriage well past its best-by date and floundering on the rocks of unmet expectations.

The movie is not far from a filmed play. Albertson and Sheen reprise their stage roles, while Patricia Neal was brought in for big-screen name recognition, and this was her triumphant return after a near-fatal stroke. Grosbard attempts to introduce a couple of awkward sojours outside the cramped apartment, with Nettie's day out proving to be particularly awkward and pointless to the tune of a grating song.

In retrospect, the film suffers from two fundamental weaknesses that are only partially the fault of the original material. By 1968 the Vietnam War was dominating the cultural landscape, and here was a story about a soldier returning from World War Two and walking into the turmoil of...his parents bickering. With the United States in the throes of seminal societal and cultural upheaval, the film becomes a quaint look back at a much more innocent time, despite all the loud arguments.

And to compound matters, Timmy as the returning veteran is the most stable character in the movie. It's as if he was away at a prolonged summer camp, and whatever it was he did in the war, The Subject Was Roses is not interested. More than 20 years prior films like The Best Years Of Our Lives blew the lid off the trauma of the returning soldier, and for Gilroy to not even tangentially approach the topic contributes to an uneven narrative.

What remains is a kitchen table social drama where every scene reveals another rub point between John and Nettie, a couple whose mutual love and affection were very much lost over the years, a middle-class and less sophisticated version of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. Nettie is obsessed with looking after her mother and a handicapped sibling (never seen), John never psychologically recovered from a major economic setback, and together they are at their best when engaged in winding each other up, with Timmy firmly stuck in the crossfire.

The script features some sharp dialogue exchanges, Timmy the beneficiary of the best lines, and all three performances are in tune with the overheated emotions, although Neal is by far the most enigmatic.

A typical familial train wreck designed to induce rubber necking, The Subject Was Roses neither disappoints nor enthralls.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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