The elements are in place but they don't add up to great drama in this well-meant effort to personalize the plight of illiterate people.
The elements are in place but they don’t add up to great drama in this well-meant effort to personalize the plight of illiterate people.
Project reunites director Martin Ritt with screenwriting team that produced the Oscar-winning Norma Rae, which also had a working-class setting and underdog social concern. Stanley & Iris [from the novel Union Street by Pat Barker] features Robert De Niro’s plight as an illiterate cook but proves too small for a feature film framework.
Jane Fonda plays Iris, a recent widow still struggling with grief while trying to support a whole household. She catches the eye of Stanley Cox, a cafeteria cook who at middle age has never learned to read or write. Fired by his boss for being potentially dangerous, Stanley no longer can afford to care properly for the aging father who lives with him. When the old man dies, Stanley finally confronts his fears and asks Iris to teach him to read.
Fonda has some trouble evoking a woman whose life would have dropped her off at such a humble station. De Niro, as a quiet, prideful man who feels foolish and like ‘a big dummy’ trying to learn, does in fact come across as self-consciously awkward and a tad silly, though his performance includes some muted, winning comedy.