An adept if necessarily limited translation of uncinematic material, “The Guys” retains the potency of its stage original as a poignant, ingeniously simple tribute to firefighters lost in the World Trade Center disaster. First performed Off Broadway by Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray at NYC’s Flea Theater, two-hander in which a journalist and fire captain collaborate on writing eulogies has been adapted by playwright Anne Nelson and legit-turned-firsttime-film director Jim Simpson (who’s also Weaver’s spouse). Quietly moving results credit all concerned, though in both form and content “The Guys” defines the sort of movie most people feel they “should” see but seldom spend actual entertainment dollars on. Modest-at-best theatrical returns will be followed by much wider exposure as a prestige tube item.
In real life, Nelson found herself in the days after 9-11 connected via acquaintances to a fire captain charged with delivering eulogies at services for men in his squad whose bodies were still lost amid WTC wreckage. As Flea’s artistic director, Simpson was looking for a piece that could address the world-shaking event. An accidental meeting with Nelson led to her turning her own experience into a dramatic exercise, one swiftly staged, bare-bones style, to acclaim at home, in L.A. and Dublin. Film incarnation has Weaver as Joan, an Upper West Side wife, mother, editor and academic who’d once reported on the Latin American “dirty wars” of the 1980s. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack, she learns of a New York Fire Dept. captain’s plight, and freely offers her professional help sculpting the addresses he’ll have to deliver before grieving coworkers and relatives.
Nick (LaPaglia) is an awkward partner at first. Having lost eight of his 12 men, he’s cowed by the responsibility, and dubious about his ability to articulate profound feelings.
Working at Joan’s tony apartment, the journo deftly coaxes reminiscences from Nick about the felled men. Four must be “written up” immediately, since their memorials are imminent. Basic structure is thus divided in quarters, as Nick describes his buddies and Joan tries distilling that info into concise, heartfelt speeches.
Potential for mawkishness is nicely averted by the credible difficulties posed by memorializing each man equally. One was a loveable screwup, another Nick’s best mate. But a third was almost invisible in his self-effacement, while fourth was a 22-year-old rookie who’d barely had time to make any impression.
Struggling against deadline over a couple days’ course, the very different lead characters — cultured and upscale on one side, working-class regular guy on the other — settle into a friendly if slightly stiff groove that develops just the slightest sexual tension(amusingly tweaked in a brief seg that turns out to be Joan’s fantasy).
Eventually, her gentle interviews nudge him past his stumbling blocks. Closing set piece has Nick delivering the final eulogy before a vast congregation of mourners.
Simpson further opens up the static text by use of Weaver’s voiceover narration, news clips, brief outdoor sequences and occasional interruptions by Joan’s impatient school-age children. Nonetheless, there’s no mistaking “The Guys” for anything but a stage entity, gracefully executed (with particular credit due Sarah Flack’s editing). What makes it worthwhile is the astute downsizing of indelible events to their most intimate scale. With Joan and Nick cast as two far-flung Everypersons thrown together by public catastrophe, pic usefully restores 9-11 to human proportions — undistorted by politics.
Leads are the whole show, natch, and their work together is beautifully harmonized. (All the more so considering that due to a technical glitch, 80% of footage had to be reshot after initial wrap, as Simpson related at Toronto preem.) While Weaver has some over-studied moments, she easily convinces as a writer — even giving Joan stints at the computer keyboard when her professional wheels spin so absorbingly she almost forgets Nick is in the room. LaPaglia is superb as a man still reeling from his inability to save the men in his charge, but determined to pay them fitting tribute.
Modest package is nicely detailed in every aspect, especially Susan Block’s apartment set design. One slightly off choice is opening/closing use of an “Amazing Grace” vocal curiously set to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun.”