Unrelentingly bleak, Ironweed is a film without an audience and no reason for being except its own self-importance. It’s an event picture without the event. Whatever joy or redemption William Kennedy offered in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel is nowhere to be found, surprising since he wrote the screenplay.
The story of Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) who returns to his native Albany in 1938 literally carrying a lifetime of ghosts with him is loaded with elaborate expository passages trying to account for why an obviously intelligent individual has abandoned his family for a bum’s life.
Phelan’s movement around Albany is like a passage through the rings of hell, but instead of coming out at paradise, he’s still the same old bum at the end.
Nicholson and Meryl Streep have approximately three scenes together and though they clearly have a great deal of affection for each other, they are beyond passion.
1987: Nominations: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Actress (Meryl Streep)