Nat Moyer (Walter Matthau), the lead character in “I’m Not Rappaport,” is about equal parts mythomaniac and latter-day Don Quixote. His windmills are society’s user-unfriendly institutions that prey on the helpless and persecute the elderly. In playwright Herb Gardner’s screen translation of his award-winning play, the author missteps in making his drama overly realistic and muting the more fantastic elements. It winds up being an uncomfortable mix of slap-shtick and social commentary, with the passage of time having dulled the story’s sense of humor. Theatrical prospects will be limited to an upscale, older crowd, with scant possibility of crossover appeal.
“Rappaport” is set largely in Manhattan’s Central Park, the venue serving as Nat’s open-air forum for venting a considerable laundry list of grievances. He weaves elaborate tales of government conspiracy with plausible conviction to a willing comrade in arms named Midge Carter (Ossie Davis), a man whose days tending an antique boiler are quickly evaporating. The two men complement each other, having survived to a ripe old age by wildly different means.
Survival, however, is but a sub-theme here. More to the point is coming to terms with lives that are at risk of being made extinct long before the coroner’s report. The galvanizing moment for Nat is the threat of being declared legally incompetent by his daughter (Amy Irving), while Midge finds his future in jeopardy when both he and his beloved boiler are set for retirement.
The desperation of the two men is tacit rather than explicit. They’re angry and hurt, and Midge is somewhat at sea, having dodged confrontation all his life. But the prospect of dire straits emboldens Nat. He assumes the identities of Bartley, Hernando, Anthony (Tony the Cane) Donatto and others from his fertile imagination in an attempt to secure a place in the changing world.
There’s no question that “I’m Not Rappaport” has some potent commentary cast in an amusing setting. But its transition from stage to screen lacks the experience and the objective perspective that Gardner can’t provide in his film-directing debut. Much of the storytelling cohesion intrinsic to a theater piece has been reduced to mere anecdote onscreen. But the picture’s worst sin is its sense of self-importance and unwarranted confidence that what it has to say verges on gospel.
Matthau gives a winning, though familiar, grumpy-old-man performance. That the part seems ideally suited to his screen persona turns out to be more constricting than liberating. In contrast, Davis, with less obvious demands placed on his character, emerges as more poignant and effective.
Gardner’s supporting cast is mostly relegated to serving as plot devices. An exception is Irving, who touchingly conveys all the pain and love for her father that’s made her decision so difficult.
Visual credits are solid, but pacing is a major problem. Scenes play too long and create an emotional anxiety that doesn’t at all seem intentional.
Pic is the final Gramercy release to have emanated from Universal under its former joint distribution venture.