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Grim And Wonderful
uhmartinez-phd20 November 2007
Cold, desolate in the surface and an uncomfortable warmth in the inside. Meryl Streep leads in a way that is difficult to explain. She provides a truly magic movie moment when she sings "He's My Pal" for her supper. For a moment we live her fantasy. Her moment is our moment, that's why as the song and the fantasy ends something inside me cracked. I felt tears running down my face and, I swear, I wasn't ready for that. The humanity of Meryl Streep, the actress, filters through the devastating circumstances of her character. Circumstances that, by the time we meet her, are already a way of life. At the beginning of the film, when somebody asks her how is she, her reply is "Delightful". Trying to adjust to this character I listen to her stained, tired voice, trying to be heard and I did, heard her. I love Meryl Streep.
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They're my pals.
dbdumonteil21 June 2002
Never the timing for a movie had been so disastrous.Released in those "glorious " eighties when the success stories and the triumphalist heroes were the golden rule,"Ironweed" stood no chance at all.Two tramps did not fit well in the movie landscape of those "feel good" times.And two tramps played by two megastars ,it was unforgivable!

The cast is stellar,but it's Meryl Streep whom I will remember FOREVER.When she sings her little tune "he's me pal" she's so heart-wrenching that she will move you to tears."At least ,I didn't betray anybody" she said.Although it was a colossal flop,Streep would only approach such an emotion afterwards.(notably in "the bridges of Madison County")Nicholson was equally courageous to play such a demeaning part,and he gets strong support from Carroll Baker who proves here she can age gracefully and from Tom Waits ,ideally cast as a barfly.

"Ironweed" is very hard to see nowadays.One of these days ,it will be given the place it deserves.
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Being Down and Out in America Illustrates What America is Really All About
writerasfilmcritic8 October 2006
"Ironweed" is a good movie and a scathing indictment of life in modern America. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep effectively portray a pair of homeless bums on the cold late October streets of Albany, New York during the Great Depression. Their day to day existence revolves around simple survival in the most difficult of circumstances -- how to keep from going hungry, where to score a few hours work or a few drinks, and where to "flop" come nightfall in order to avoid being beaten and robbed or freezing to death. You don't have to be a bum to understand this list of priorities, although certainly, spending any time without a conventional home will clue you in like nothing else can. There are, you see, several levels of homelessness, street people of various kinds occupying the lowest tier. A level above that are the people who live in their cars, camping at the curb or crashing with friends, some of them duly employed while others are "between jobs." Then there are those who spend months or even years living in recreational vehicles of one sort or another and migrating with the seasons. These are the elite of the homeless crowd, ranging from truly adventurous souls who occasionally go without enough food to those with substantial bank accounts and second homes. Nonetheless, most if not all of them understand something about being kicked around and shown the door, just like the bums in this flick. Certainly, they all understand what its like on occasion not to know where you will end up spending the night, why authority figures are to be avoided, and why conventional people are nearly always the enemy, whether they know it or not.

"Ironweed" puts a human face on the kinds of people society scorns the most -- street people, who live in filth and seldom wash, who often abuse alcohol or drugs yet haven't enough to eat and may dig through garbage searching for an abandoned morsel. They often live this way for a reason and not only because they have no choice. Frank has a choice but he is convinced that to go home "won't work out." He's a luckier bum than his fellows, who seem to have no choice at all. Oddly, it's pride just as much as eccentricity, incipient insanity, or alcoholism that keeps them where they are. Helen was a successful singer before her life went on the skids. Too much wine, a slump in her career, and being robbed of her inheritance seemed to signal her inevitable slide into oblivion. Now she barks at passersby and sleeps with whomever will tolerate her presence -- at a price, of course. Sandra is a drunk, an ex-whore, and in terrible shape when the others discover her passed out against a lamppost in freezing weather. They get her a blanket and some hot soup and prop her against a wall, but obviously, she is not long for this world. Rudy's a good sport, a bum's true friend, and he just scored a new gray suit, but he's been given six months to live and soon enough his new threads are grimy and tattered, just like the old ones. And so goes it. Only the strongest survive. All the while the comfortable bourgeoisie look upon the suffering of these brave souls with contempt, disgust, and often, unbridled hostility, hoping to avoid them and occasionally making them pay dearly for the inconvenience. Although the bums seem to scurry at the margins of society like rats on the prowl for scraps, they are, in a way, truly living. For however unenviable their precarious lot may be, they are on the edge, so unlike the predictable, dull, and hypocritical existence of the conventional folk around them. At times, one either knows or suspects that the bums are being romanticized or their foibles somewhat exaggerated, but nonetheless, the story comes off as reasonably authentic. And the acting in it is superb. One criticism, however -- the soft focus effect throughout. I take it the director was attempting to blur further the distinction between fantasy and reality, posing as it did a continuing problem for the main characters, who often dreamed of some simple connection to dignity, comfort, and security while in the throes of their unrelenting misery. Nonetheless, I would have preferred a sharp focus. Otherwise, I found this flick to be very inspired.
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Streep's Greatest Performance
kinolieber21 April 2001
There are many reasons why this film is a masterpiece, but the most significant element is surely Streep's portrayal of a homeless alcoholic in 1930's Albany. Her appearance, about half an hour into the film, is quite frankly, astonishing. She walks into a soup kitchen and sits down next to Nicholson and your jaw drops at the transformation. Beyond the technical virtuosity, you marvel at the choices that Streep makes that express the character so movingly, from the vocal production which is almost like a groan of pain, to the body language including her constantly averted glance and shuffling walk which express the woman's lost self esteem, to her bursts of rage when we see the glimmer of the spirit she once posessed. There's a scene in a bar in which she sings for the patrons that you will never forget.

Every other element of the film succeeds: the other performances (Nicholson, Tom Waits and Carol Baker stand out), the production design recreating a vanished era flawlessly without resorting to the phony perfection of say a Merchant Ivory film, the sound design which is surprisingly complex for such an intimate film, the screenplay, the cinematography, the direction. How is it that Hector Babenco has only made two films since this one?
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Ephemeral, beautiful, heartaching, and soon gone
copcigar19 November 2000
_Ironweed_ haunts for a long time after viewing, so be prepared. I also suggest that you be employed while you view this one.

William Kennedy's novel was an extreme work of beauty, and as much as I enjoyed and respected the novel, I never dreamed a film version could surpass it. In some ways at least, I believe this film does. Streep is luminous, no small feat while playing a drunk (they weren't called "homeless people" back then). And although he's proved it again since, this was the first time most of us saw Nicholson act. Tom Waits is terrific and gritty, Carroll Baker comes out of semi-retirement as though this was the one role she had left in her to play, and mixes pain and determination in just the right quantities.

Babenco clearly had a vision, and displays a maturity I hadn't expected from him. Even the score, a couple of tunes used over the opening and closing credits will make your heart ache.

It's all pathos, and it's all good. Grab it while you can -- I had to go to Canada and get a used copy online to find it at all. It was worth it.
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Not for the faint of heart
csm2318 May 2002
Have you ever wondered what's it's like to be homeless? To most of us, it's as foreign an existence as the medieval world of Hugh Capet. And yet, it's a way of life that's within reach of all of us. And I'm not talking about its physical proximity, about the unfortunates we pass on the streets with their bed rolls on their backs: on the contrary, I'm referring to its spiritual, psychological proximity, to all the rest of us, who, given the right circumstances, could give up on our cheery Western materialist society and wander off into the shadows.

Ironweed takes its viewers into that shadowy world of the rail yards, cardboard shantytowns, underpasses, and abandoned automobiles, and shows us incisive glimpses of how a person arrives there. Featuring what I think are the very best performances by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, Ironweed gets us deep into the sooty, grimy, bilious skin of the two `hobos.' Like Schindler's List, Ironweed is dark poetry. When the movie is over, you're haunted for days by the imagery.

Set in Albany during the Great Depression, Ironweed delivers not an ounce of moralizing. It's like a clinical exposition of the homeless person's entire life, both from without, and within. On the outside, of course, there's the Depression: a society doing the best it can to get by. From the `hobo's' point of view, one feels the implicit violence of a culture taught to view others as economic instruments of their own survival. The homeless, of course, are on the bottom end of the food chain. On the inside, Ironweed takes us into the intense pain of dashed hopes and expectations. From within and without, the homeless are caught in a whirling vortex that only grinds them down deeper and deeper into despair, the type that Kierkegaard's describes in `Sickness unto Death.' It's where intense poverty is not just physical, but spiritual.

This is a terrific movie; but, it's not for the faint of heart.
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A touchstone for the baby-boom generation
john-275420 October 2005
As a boomer myself, this movie made me recall my uncles from my mother's side of the family -- men from the wrong side of the tracks who were scarred by the Depression. I anticipate that others in my age group will share my sense of deja vu.

The story is sad, yet in these heartless modern times, when families eat their prepackaged dinners in separate rooms, watching TV or surfing the Web, the viewer feels nostalgia even for the Depression because experiences were shared deeply with others.

This film is about loss -- loss of family and of love -- and about the hard times that made these heartbreaks even more wrenching. The Depression has been portrayed more accurately here than in any movie in my memory.

The writing is exemplary, as is the set design and camera work. But it's the the performances that shine brightest. Not only those of Nicholson and Streep, from whom you expect greatness (this movie was shot before Nicholson started playing himself). Watch for stunning vignettes by Tom Waits, who can act far better than he can sing, and a show-stopper by the fine character actor Jake Dengel.

In our postliterate time, when attempts at drama come off more like caricatures, and people's ability to relate to each other is only Blackberry-deep, the experience of watching a film about the human experience as it used to be is one to be treasured.
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Depressing drama. Very good acting.
michaelRokeefe15 August 2000
Jack Nicholson usually relies on his quirky mannerisms and catch phrases; in this movie he shows his acting talents in a more serious manner. This movie is a brutal look at street people in the late 1930s. Meryl Streep immerses herself into her part as usual. This movie is harsh, cold and depressing. And the running time almost pushes two and a half hours long. I honestly don't know what they could have left out to make it shorter. Once is enough for this one. It will take a while for you to get your mind off of the abundance of hardship and sadness.

Nicholson and Streep are joined with a solid, diverse cast that includes Carroll Baker, Michael O'Keefe, Tom Waits, Nathan Lane and Fred Gwynne.
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a bleak vision of depression-era America, which means its honest to start
Quinoa19844 March 2008
Ironweed is the kind of film that pierces right through my senses, to the point where I'm left to no other alternative but to sob at the end of it all. I felt that at the end of such films as Requiem for a Dream, Mystic River, United 93, and a good few Bergman works. Ironweed, as with those films, doesn't cheat the audience with anything that seems dishonest. Even the schizophrenia (if that is what it is definitively) that Francis (Nicholson) has throughout where he sees visions of all the dead that he either caused- in self-defense or otherwise- or saw happen, doesn't have that kitschy sentimental beat to it. This goes without saying it won't be for all moviegoers, and the most recent DVD release is misleading: we see Nicholson's trademark grin, as if this might be a *cheerful* movie about those in even deeper squalor than most in 1938 Albany, New York.

Sure, there might be a few lines here or there that bring a chuckle, like a line Francis has about needing turkey since he has no duck. But for the most part this is a drama that is deep into its artistic intentions to be frank with the story at hand. Director Babilco doesn't shy away with his camera from the material in William Kennedy's script, and neither do the cast. A good thing to: there needs to be a formidable handle on the pain and misery that Francis, Helen (Streep), and Rudy (Waits) have to deal with every day and especially at night. They could die any moment- Rudy reveals that he has terminal cancer almost with a strange, ambiguous grin (which, coming from Waits, has a lot of meaning to that)- but there's just enough hope with whatever few bucks can come around.

If for no other reason should you see the film it's for the cast, as it's above all else an actor's film. While the director and writer have their immense contributions to the proceedings (the direction is patient, sometimes tense, occasionally even poetic even with the slightly sappy music score, and the writing is not compromised in the adaptation from Pulitzer prize winning source), Nicholson, Streep, and everybody all make this a vital and potent take on those, ultimately, marginalized. Whether Streep or Nicholson take more of the meaty drama for their characters can be debated till dawn's break, but if I did have to really choose I'd say Nicholson was greater, one of the high points in a career chock full of them. Perhaps he does have more though to have a hold of; Streep's Helen has a background of a failed pianist career, odd ties to those still in Albany, and a perpetual self-hatred. It goes without saying she carries her end of the log well as the star-cum-lumberjack, particularly in a perfect scene in the midway through involving a song in a bar.

But with Francis Nicholson goes into real "actor" mode (i.e. Passenger, Cuckoo's Nest, Chinatown, Carnal Knowledge), delving into this man who has many past ghosts, from his crimes of passion to his ultimate sin involving his baby's death. Any thoughts that Nicholson can't get into sorrow, regret, and ultimately a form of madness, and yes even tears, can be squashed watching this. But at the same time is he forceful and intense in handling the regret and anger Francis has, there's also great subtlety, underplaying it just enough for what the scenes often require, which is subtext, such as the scenes at her old family's house where what isn't spoken speaks even more than what is. Throw in some extra supporting work that clicks excellently, such as a possible best-yet Tom Waits performance, a singing Ed Gwynn, and Diane Verona among others, and it's assuredly one of the best crops of performances in 80s American film. It deserves, some twenty years or so later, to get rediscovered.
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"I believe you die when you can't stand it anymore."
classicsoncall20 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep portray a pair of down and out derelicts caught in the throes of the Great Depression in Albany, New York. The year is 1938, with church missions and soup kitchens the norm for those without work and no other means of support. What comes across most disturbing perhaps is the day to day existence of a guy like Francis Phelan (Nicholson), scrabbling for pick up work for a few dollars a day, and chucking it when the boss turns out to be a heel. A dollar went a lot further back in the Thirties, but it's disconcerting to see someone content enough to get by on a few bucks for a cheap meal and a flop at a crummy rooming house.

The larger story involves Fran's search for some minor shot at redemption following the two decade absence from his family, aggravated in no small part by the death of an infant son as a result of his drinking. He's unable to forgive himself, even if a reconciliation with his ex-wife (Carroll Baker) offers some small measure of reassurance. Throughout the film, Fran has to confront the ghosts of his past, both literally and figuratively. He continually envisions a man he killed accidentally during a worker's strike decades earlier, a tramp who died attempting to outrun the cops, and a fellow hobo who would have taken his feet along with the shoes he coveted aboard a train car.

Through it all however, one gets the sense that Fran's basically a good guy, and Helen's (Streep) a good gal. It's just that they've been down so long, there doesn't seem to be any hope of digging one's way out. The bar scene at Oscar Reo's (Fred Gwynne) saloon is one of the highlights of a picture that overall is generally depressing. It's when Helen offers a singing tribute to her partner in an inspiring rendition of 'He's Me Pal', in her mind captivating a rapt audience at the Eldorado, but in actuality, merely appeasing the handful of daily customers. In what would be a somewhat prophetic pronouncement that would turn into another Nicholson picture some ten years later, Fran turns to her and comments, "By God Helen, that's As Good As it Gets".
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Beautiful lovely haunting movie
bobcolganrac5 February 2007
This movie is taken from the concluding book in the William Kennedy trilogy about depression era Albany. It is also anywhere USA. It is also anywhere globally. The themes are primarily loss, accommodation to loss, and spiritual decline. Underneath, deeply buried within is the small flickering hope that somehow we can continue, and that love will somehow still survive against the odds. I love this movie. It is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I am writing this short comment simply because I read others who lambasted it. They weren't watching the movie. They weren't seeing one of the best acted pieces of cinema extant. I don't know what they were watching.

Nicholson's role of a gritty alcoholic floating from skidrow flop to skidrow flop is as good a performance as I have seen. Frances Phelan is hounded by guilt and beset by failure yet never completely gives up. Nicholson's natural self lends itself well to this. What struck me was his ability to convey the deep sadness of Phelan --his visitation to his son's grave is to my mind the best single scene he's ever done. I did not believe that he could take it to that place with that intensity. I doubted he had that depth of character rendition within him, especially since the quintessential Nicholson has always been the roguish, slightly sarcastic and grinning bad boy thumbing his nose at authority like his bit in Five Easy Pieces. I was pleased to find I had misjudged him. There is a power to that particular scene that itself haunts the movie.

Not much can be said about Streep's performance. It is simply beyond description. Extraordinary acting. Her hallucinatory song in the bar where her dreams and hopes are seen as faded illusions is her character's pivotal moment and encapsulates the failed dreams of and hopes of every character in the movie at the same time. It all comes together in this hypnotic fusion of drugged distortion superimposed on the ugly reality of the apathy and rejection of the barflys. Powerful stuff. Streep has done any number of movies that rank among the finest female performances including what some consider her best, Sophie's Choice, and this role is a much smaller part--indeed, the character Helen is mentioned more than seen in the movie-- but she breathes life into the character by amplifying every nuance. The least motion is carefully studied and precisely acted. I think it is Streep's amazing attention to Helen's drunkenly careless mannerisms that ennoble the role. Helen is a sot whose life has been defined by her downward slide, yet she might've been someone of dignity and accomplishment. She holds fast to that dignity even as the reality in which she moves denies it. Phelan may embody a life filled with failure; Helen embodies failure itself.

The supporting cast and the ambiance of the settings are completely appropriate. Casting is excellent. Hy Anzell's Rosskam the ragpicker is marvelous. Carol Baker's long-suffering and still-loving wife, Annie, is perfect. Is the movie perfect?---no, of course not. It is an adaptation of a novel, looks and feels as if it were actually lifted from a play, and may well have included more of the novel in someone else's interpretation. But the movie they created has an unmistakable power about it. I love it. To echo everyone else who loves it: WHY NOT DVD? What is holding this up? Years from now it could be seen as a a marketing mistake, at least an artistic failure to not have released a DVD with the comments from those involved in the making.

Truly a great movie.
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Helen Archer, a croquis for greater roles to come, Kundry, perhaps
jwardww16 February 2014
Watching Streep's creation of Helen Archer is a complete joy, from her poignant silences to her gemuetlich cabaret turn, humorous, tragic, moving but never maudlin. The character puts me in mind of that other sublime derelict from opera, Kundry, for whom it would seem Meryl has done workshops throughout her career. In addition to her Helen Archer, We have her femme fatale, Jill, in Manhattan, Madeline Ashton, a woman cursed with a Kundry-like longevity, like that of Emilia Marti from The Makropoulos Case, albeit actively sought and dearly paid for. Don't get me wrong, I loved the performance of Katarina Dalayman in the Met's most recent production of Parsifal, but, during my second viewing, not in the opera house, but in an HD theater, it became clear that one really needs an actress as mindful as Streep to make this spectacular acting opportunity realized to full satisfaction. She should take off for a year to work on it. And her voice. Yes, she will be required to sing high B and low B on the same word, Lachte. That vocal firework explodes as Kundry describes the ancient sin that occasioned her self-imposed curse. It has kept her alive over a thousand years in many guises: Herodias, Gundryggia and many personalities the audience never hears about. Now in the employ of Klingsor, she is required to tempt and bring down Parsifal, yet another vulnerable protector of the Grail. Streep would have amazing growth potential in that second act. For here she needs to communicate infinite wisdom, dumbness, innocence, guilt, power and impotence simultaneously. In the third act she is without a single line or note to perform, and yet a central character transformed as much as Parsifal himself. I'm sure she could meet the challenge of performing in silence with impressive creativity. As in all great scripts, this libretto is open ended in a way that would afford a freedom of interpretation any actor would sign on for. She could pull it off vocally, too. Back in 1977, before Broadway singers were miked, she did Lillian Holiday in Happy End and was a knockout vocally. In fact, one was surprised later when she chose to do non-musical roles. It was an operatic voice. Yes, 37 years have passed. But a Parsifal movie would not require the vocal heft required to fill the 4,000 seat Met opera. Moreover, computers do amazing things these days to add and subtract age. Yes, of course, it's four and a half hours long and Wagner, so it wouldn't exactly pay for itself, but would probably end up being definitive with the involvement of such an artist.
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The Great/Depressing Depression
lee_eisenberg7 February 2007
Given that we often hear a rather idealized version of the Great Depression - it seems like some people go so far as to treat it as the "good old days" - it's important to understand just what things were like back then. Hector Babenco's ultra-downer "Ironweed" does that. Jack Nicholson plays drifter Francis Phelan, who returns to his home town (where he hasn't been in years) and traipses around it, seeing the poverty prevalent throughout the Depression. He deals with his own demons and sees whether or not he can start up a new life. But he can't escape the reality of the status quo, or of his own past.

Watching this movie, you may feel like you've just been drug through a gutter. But one must wonder how much better things are nowadays. For how terrible the Depression was, it helped our country understand not only abject poverty, but what caused the Depression. In this era of air-heads slacking off and using as many resources as possible, I wonder whether or not we might be headed towards a new kind of Depression. If so, then the movie warned us.

Anyway, I recommend this movie, but understand that it's a total downer. Also starring Meryl Streep, Carroll Baker, Michael O'Keefe, Diane Venora, Fred Gwynne, Tom Waits and Nathan Lane.
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A Film for Truth Seekers
TruthXSeeker3 July 2015
Unlike most mainstream films, "Ironwood" is a movie that has the courage to tell a story true to the heart. Without giving away any spoilers, this film is about a homeless man returning to his hometown after a 22 year hiatus. Upon his return, he regains contact with his unfortunate friends whom are also living on the streets in post-depression America while also reconnecting with the family he abandoned. Granted, this film is not for viewers anticipating a happy ending. However, if you are an individual who thrills at being provoked to think, to feel, and to sympathize about characters, then watch this film.

Considering the topic, tone, and reality of "Ironwood", I would recommend viewers to watch "The Saint of Fort Washington."
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tour de force
thomasgulch4 August 2001
If you wonder why Meryl Streep and Jack Nicolson became famous as superstars, this movie will demonstrate why. These two people probably provide enough acting genius in this movie to blow out a major cineplex. Tom Waits also turns in a suprisingly good performance. If you want to see what two mature master actors can do with a rather depressing story, set in a world grimier then Cannery Row and with out the genius of Steinbecks' writing, but nevertheless excellent, rent or buy this film. It is a masterpiece.
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bleak adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winner
mjneu5928 November 2010
Does anyone else find odd the idea of a multi-million dollar, star-driven melodrama pretending to recreate the lives of penniless, alcoholic vagrants in the Great Depression? Judging from its subject matter (not to mention the punishing length and leisurely pace) this is clearly a film aspiring toward loftier goals than mere box office commerce. William Kennedy's screenplay, adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is perhaps too faithful to its source (the entire book could probably be read in less time than it takes to watch the film), and the dramatic impact of his story is handicapped by celebrity casting. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep both give (typically) vital performances, but our awareness of them as movie stars keeps the joyless reality of the scenario at arms length, where it's easy to admire their skill as actors without having to get involved in the plight of their characters. Some rich period detail, a lot of verbal exposition, and an atmosphere of despair so vivid you could slice it with a knife add up to a film with no shortage of prestige, but not much in the way of entertainment.
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Wonderful haunting movie
williamdefalco16 September 2008
I saw this movie as a young teenager a few years ago (yeah I know, while everyone my age was watching TRL I was watching this), then managed to find a copy of it, and even to this day I still feel the same wonderful impact each time I watch it.

I won't cover what's already been said before about the performances because it'll just be repeating the obvious. Everyone here gives unforgettable performances. What I will give is a small list of some of my favorite moments within the film: 1) The haunting surreal imagery that begins the opening credits. Accompanied by the beautiful hymning music it's a great introduction to this movie.

2) The first scene with Tom Wait's character, who forever remained such an innocent and tragic figure.

3) Nicholson first meeting at his son's grave. Such a beautifully shot scene, the warm sun and the river in the background framing him.

4) That one scene where Nicholson stands outside his long lost home at night, pondering about what to do.

5) That unforgettable scene with Meryl Streep's character singing to a crowd 6) Tom Waits staring up at the sky as he reminisces about Isaac Newton and the stars 7) That funny scene between Nicholson and the junk collector 8) And finally that last haunting scene where Nicholson finally decides to throw out his booze while he's on the train, then begins reminiscing about his son's room and how it catches the morning sun. Once again accompanied by that beautiful music that final scene always makes me tear up.

There's many more memorable scenes but for time's sake these will do.

It makes me wonder why such a beautiful movie hasn't been recognized by more viewers, or why it hasn't been released on DVD here in America, or why a copy of the soundtrack was never made available. Oh well. Still a great movie to catch.
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Boyo-222 February 1999
I don't know how Meryl Streep does it. I think her talent is the most amazing thing. In this movie she is matched by Nicholson. The entire movie is unforgettable, with special mention to the set designer, prop master and casting director. The movie is relentlessly depressing, but there is something uplifting at the same time. Its really hard to describe what effect a movie like this can have on a person. I know that I will never forget it.
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Tremendous heart-breaking drama
fred-houpt28 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Depressing subject matters are not everyones cup of tea, so it would seem. I have noticed more than once that a really great drama is given poor marks and if you look at the comments what you really are hearing is someone saying that they just can not deal with the subject. That reminds me of people who complain that Leonard Cohen's music is too dark and mournful. The good thing about great art is that it stands the test of time.

William Kennedy's novel is about as bleak as the movie; he wrote a very good script from the novel. Funny guy Kennedy: he's lived his whole life in Albany, New York. The city made the single impression on him of utter desperation. Not an overly pretty postcard for his hometown; however, it won him the Pullitzer, I do believe.

I saw this film years ago and was just so moved. Eventually I bought the book and got around to reading it last year. Very grim portrayal of a backwater city in Upper New York, still reeling from the dark rivers of wrecked lives left over from the depression. The story takes place almost moments from the onset of World War two; it is important to note that for many American's long down on their luck, the war years put many of them back to work and back on their feet. Not so for this small group of "bums" and lost souls.

Without giving away the gist of the story, it is about people who cannot shake the consuming shadows of their private hurts, as they slowly but surely decay into complete self destruction. In a nutshell this is the story and it can be repeated in any century and any country. The great depression was a world wide phenomenon and destroyed millions of lives, wrecked families, tore apart farming communities and was the crux upon which Hitler rationalized striking back at the black sheep all around Germany. Several great novels from America hearken from the Depression era. Steinbecks "Grapes of Wrath" is a fine example. "Ironweed" is yet another.

As a big fan of Nicolson and Streep, two of the greatest actors of their generation and who paired very well in several movies, they are at the height of their powers. Jack seems to have an affinity for this time period and is often at his very best when portraying the down and out in difficult straights. Given the meaty material there is much here that he can run away with and chew up the screen, over acting to his hearts content. That would be easy for a man of talents. However, we are watching a master. It being a given that this is a broken man returning to his home town in a very long time (I won't say away too much) and that his demons are well ahead of him, destroying what is left of his mind at the neck of any bottle of alcohol, he underplays the moments as they come and just lets the pain show without a self conscious attention grabbing performance. Jack knows that there is so much going on in the script that he is well supported in each scene, hence he can broker between what is needed on an emotional level.

One scene with Jack lingers and touched me very deeply. Visiting with family, facing their wrath face on, not flinching when the verbal punches come, he stands before them willing to accept, for the time being, all of their pain, if only they would give him a small room in their lives, even for a few hours. At the cusp of this turmoil, surrounded by his family, Jack remarks about how miracles are happening all around, referring to the one just in that room. It is a scene of most profound and quiet family gestalt and resolution. I have never watched a more moving moment. It is worth waiting for.....

Streep gives what might be one of the most dynamic and heart rending performances by any woman in cinematic history. Her evocation of a dying and emotionally destroyed one-time radio singer is something every aspiring actress would do well to study. Her spiral into various levels of intoxication and self-destruction leading to barely sane dialogs with her thoughts is hard to watch, so painful and yet elegant.

These are actors who cannot dare give a shallow portrayal of people who are on the quick road to death. That would not honor the material. All of the cast are superb and of course Tom Waits is a delight. Watch for his gravel breathed rendition of "Candy Mountain".

This is great film making and a deeply sad drama. If these types of stories give you pause, then sure, look away. But, know for a certainty that what you see on the screen is what happened. It was a very bad time for many people and there is simply no sugar coating that time period. It is not a triumph against odds. It is Requiem for the destroyed. Both Nicholson and Streep show why they are revered. A disturbing story but one of the best dramas ever portrayed. Highly recommended.
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Soberingly Somber
iquine13 February 2018
Warning: Spoilers
(Flash Review)

I saw Nicholson & Streep and an unknown movie title, clicked play and was ready for an acting clinic. I was not disappointed. The film opens with Jack awaking from his slumber under a blanket of cardboard, on the side of the road, in the midst of the Great Depression. There by circumstances partially within his own control as we slowly come to learn, he is there to visit his old hometown and later runs into a female friend, played by Streep, who is also down on her luck. Much of the film follows the two of them as they wrestle internal strife, try to earn a couple dollars to fill their stomachs with more booze than food and mend old relationships. Will this phase in their life lead to a happier place or drive them deeper into despair? Overall, the acting was really good but it wasn't an enjoyable watch. Not just because it was gritty and depressing but the pacing felt uneven and it failed to honestly emotionally affect me rather than superciliously.
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Once a Bum --
rmax30482311 May 2016
This story of a down-and-outer and his social world in 1938 is based on a novel by William Kennedy. Kennedy didn't make much money on the book but it was published and received plaudits and that satisfied him. Still, the plaudits can't reflect the amount of effort that went into constructing a world that was historical real. That world, the bums in upstate New York during the Great Depression, wasn't so long ago that a writer could feel free to invent habits, props, and language that didn't exist; and it was recent enough so that the picture presented had to be accurate -- the brand names, the streets, the fashions -- because, after all, some people could remember them. It must have taken a lot of research.

But what a milieu! The icy breeze scatters dead leaves and detritus along the street at dawn, past a dark brick wall, and at the base of the wall a windrow of newspapers and rags stirs itself and out crawls Jack Nicholson, middle aged, flabby, filthy, in hand-me-downs. He can barely get it together enough to shuffle into the bleak streets of Albany. He sits and tries to use a piece of yarn as a shoelace but he loses the duel of wits and resignedly wraps the yarn haphazardly around his shoe and ankle.

An acquaintance approaches, goofy and broke, and announces with a chuckle that he has cancer and the doctor just gave him six months live. "No kiddin'? Geeze, that's too bad, Rudy. Got enough for a jug?" The whole business of poverty, scratching, distaste for work, a liking for liquor, and dying drunk on the sidewalk to be gnawed at by wild dogs goes beyond Dickens into the worst of "Down and Out in Paris and London." The plot has something to do with the guilt Nicholson is carrying around for having dropped his baby on the floor and broken his neck. He wanders from saloon to Methodist soup kitchen, shuffling along aimlessly, forming temporary social bonds and discarding them. He looks like hell and he's magnificent.

So is his poor man's inamorata, Meryl Streep, whose eyes are reddened and whose teeth are blackened. She adopts a husky emphatic voice that more or less animates her. She's hopeless but a lot livelier than Nicholson's road kill. There's genuine pathos in her character. She's cajoled into singing a song, "He's Me Pal," in the local tavern. She starts slowly but get into it and fills the song with élan, swinging her arms, kissing the customers, and booming out the high notes with a reasonable vibrato. Boistrous applause. But then she sings it again later, presumably drunk, and spoils it because she's unable to carry a note. The customers aren't scornful. Worse, they just ignore her. Nicholson and Streep were two of the best actors of their generation and they deliver the goods, although Nicholson is sometimes so sluggish that one wonder if the role is getting to him. It seems an effort for him to move at all.

It's a gripping movie but, my God, it's tragic. I had to bleed myself with leeches to relieve the depression.
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One time's the charm
patricklewallen9 September 2008
After seeing the two starring actors listed as the top billings in this high rated film, I felt intrigued to view it... so I did. Little did I know I was in for one of the most depressing films of all time with some of the strongest acting ever put forth. Jack Nicholson, as always, puts on a performance for the ages, earning him his well deserved Oscar Nomination. The sinful part, however, is that Meryll Streep did not win her Oscar Nomination. With flawless ease, Streep carried her character through triumph (the one or two we see) and tragedy, letting every moment live inside each viewer. After speaking so highly of this film, you would think I would strongly recommend it. Yet, I would not recommend this film simply because it is just too dark with far too few bright spots. This incredible film deserves to be seen, and if you are just a movie-goer who enjoys a film with more to offer than meets the eye, this is the movie for you. Don't expect to be happy after the film, though - despite the beautiful performances put on by all. Brilliant movie on all accounts. With a few more bright spots, this would be a guaranteed 10/10 film. B+
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One of the most underrated movies of all-time
donleyt-13 May 2009
I saw Ironweed when it first came out in 1987 and thought it was a classic. Unfortunately I was one of the few who saw it at the movies. I have seen it several times since and rank it as one of the greatest movies of all time. Hopefully it will be re-discovered. The acting is absolutely first rate. Streep has her finest role and Tom Waits, Carol Baker and Fred Gwynn are excellent. The movie rightly so belongs to Nicholson. This ranks with Chinatown as one of his two finest roles. That's saying a lot for a guy who has 18 Golden Globe and 12 Oscar noms. Jack really plays this role perfectly. He certainly deserved the Oscar for his work- how Michael Douglas won for Wall St. is beyond me. The scene with his daughter- reading a letter that he had sent her years ago has me balling every time I see it. I love movies and this one ranks as one of the true treasures in cinema.
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Beautiful, flawed gem of loss
amosduncan_20005 September 2006
This ernest, committed screen version of the popular novel of pre safety net America is a meditation on loss, despair, and the flicker hope of redemption. Parts are straightforward and just right, others flounder aimlessly. William Kennedy was supposedly very involved in the process, perhaps a mistake. A less literal approach might have helped many of the scenes, especially the way over played out scenes with the ghosts. Nicholson could have, and probably should have, given us much of the man's haunted quality on his own.

Streep is wonderful in her most underestimated performance; by the time this came out She had so many Oscar nominations that wags scoffed at her "bag lady" imitation. Nonsense, She was never better. Yet the film may flounder in trying to give equal time to it's stars, the Helen Character does take up less of the book.

Nicholson comes close, but can't quite pull this guy off. The static, poorly staged scenes with his family don't help. Yet he has fine moments. Tom Waits, and in a smaller role, Fred Gwynne, are remarkable. The score has lovely interludes, and the photography has stunning images.

Make no mistake, this is a very somber film and if that's not your cup of tea, stay away. If your open to the poetic and tragic, however, give it a whirl. There is something effective to remember, along with every misstep.
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Heavy-hitting...and yet overpowering
moonspinner554 June 2011
Alcoholic vagabond Francis Phelan, a former ballplayer and family man before the Depression, returns to the haunts of his hometown, yet is besieged by ghosts from the past. William Kennedy's Pulitzer prize-winning novel doesn't necessarily make for gripping movie material--all the drama seems to be in the flashbacks--while the overlay of the bleak economic times coupled with Phelan's ruinous drinking habit diffuses any hope this will be a thoughtful or provocative exercise. Instead, it's just a downer, and a very long one at an overstretched 143 minutes. Jack Nicholson (though Oscar-nominated) hasn't much hope in bringing out the complicated psyche of Phelan (Nicholson tries but he's too modern, his inflections too familiar, to be convincing in this milieu). Better is Meryl Streep as Phelan's ailing bar-friend who used to be a singer. Streep, who also received a nomination, doesn't have nearly enough screen-time to carve out a three-dimensional characterization, but what she leaves us with is memorable and moving nevertheless, particularly in her "He's Me Pal" fantasy song number. Argentine-born director Hector Babenco would seem an odd choice to helm a picture about very American depressions, though he certainly understands squalor, disease and a desire for personal redemption, and parts of the film pack an honest punch. However, "Ironweed" is too lofty to make a genuine connection; the emotional 'signposts' are pretentious while Lauro Escorel's brown and gold-hued cinematography, striking at first, eventually tires the eye. Babenco's handling is careful--too careful and meticulous--mummifying the overall experience instead of drawing audiences in. ** from ****
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