For Miramax this year, the film stands artistically somewhere between the blandness of “Beautiful Girls” and the genuine eccentricity of “Flirting With Disaster.” The weird central premise of the script by debutingdirector Matt Reeves and Jason Katims establishes an initial mysteriousness that makes the film seem edgier than it is. A TV-like sensibility asserts itself early on in the handling of the humor and characterizations that pushes the material straight down the middle of the road.
Without a job a year out of college and still living with Mom in Brooklyn, affable oaf Tom Thompson (Schwimmer) gets a call out of the blue from a Ruth Abernathy (Barbara Hershey), asking him to serve as a pallbearer at the funeral of her son, with whom Tom supposedly went to high school. Too ashamed to tell the woman that he doesn’t even remember her boy, who committed suicide, Tom obliges her, but is then called upon to deliver the eulogy — with distinctly embarrassing results.
Neither smart nor dumb, suave nor totally nerdy, Tom just hasn’tgotten it together yet. His circle of friends is limited to his old high school pals Scott (Michael Vartan) and Brad (Michael Rapaport) and their respective girlfriends Cynthia (Toni Collette) and Lauren (Bitty Schram), so he is caught off guard by the reappearance of the lovely Julie DeMarco (Gwyneth Paltrow), on whom he had a terrible crush before she moved away senior year. Once he sees her, he’s a goner all over again.
But before Tom can get anywhere with Julie, the grieving Mrs. Abernathy seduces the young man.
Willed a car by the deceased son whom he still can’t recall, Tom is better enabled to take Julie, who has rather lost herself in the wake of an abruptly canceled wedding, out on the town. But when Mrs. Abernathy finds out about her youthful competition, all hell breaks loose.
In the aftermath, there’s a resolution of key misunderstandings that translates into new-found maturity and humanity all around. Young audiences today won’t know or care, but the similarities between “The Graduate” and “The Pallbearer” are really a bit much. The central character in both is an adrift fellow in his mid-20s living at home who is seduced by a sexy older woman but really wants a beautiful woman his own age, putting the young man in a morally reprehensible position.
The wrath of the older woman scorned is terrifying, and visual treatment when she realizes her young man is seeing someone else is identical, as she is photographed flattened up against a wall. The parents in both are broadly caricatured (especially, here, Tom’s nudgy, intrusive mother, played by Carol Kane), and some of Schwimmer’s line readings even suggest those of Dustin Hoffman.
The differences begin with the facts that “The Pallbearer” is nowhere near as barbed or witty as the earlier pic, and it doesn’t convey anything particular about the Zeitgeist of its period, a crucial factor in the huge success of “The Graduate.” Reeves’ film speaks for the large number of people in their 20s who still live with their parents, but otherwise could have taken place just about anytime and anyplace. Even the song score is highly generalized, containing everything from Al Green and Curtis Mayfield to Django Reinhardt and Sheryl Crow.
Although Tom’s denseness and lack of spine are aggravating at times, Schwimmer displays a winning, if rather deadpan, personality along with good comic timing, indicating a promising bigscreen future. Paltrow is radiant and splendid as the understandable object of Tom’s anxious attentions. Supporting cast is keyed up a bit high so as to register with distinctive, but obvious, effect.
Reeves’ direction is very smooth and assured for a first outing, even if his intent is generally underlined. Tech credits are standard.