It is slightly alarming when movies on the big screen begin to resemble episodes of television situation comedies in almost every particular. This is especially true, at present, of the romantic comedy genre. Films including If Lucy Fell (1996), She's The One (1996) and The Pallbearer exhibit a flat, artless, brittle quality.
The Pallbearer takes David Schwimmer from the popular television series Friends and tries to accommodate his persona within a classic plot situation: a fey hero is mistaken for someone else, and then keeps compounding the problem by playing along with the initial masquerade. It is the type of knotty, excruciating premise which Preston Sturges handled best fifty-two years ago in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).
Here, sad-sack Tom (Schwimmer) is wrenched out his sheltered existence as a Momma's boy when he is contacted by the grieving Ruth (Barbara Hershey). Her son has just died and she believes (mistakenly) that Tom was his best friend. So Tom becomes a pallbearer and eulogist at the funeral.
More significantly, Tom tangles intimately with two women: Ruth, and his old schoolmate Julie (Gwyneth Paltrow). With an evident nod to The Graduate (1967) and Spanking the Monkey (1994), the film steers Tom through this difficult and supposedly thrilling rite of passage.
The film strains to have this prick-hero make it up to all the women for his sins, via various selfless acts that simply go on and on. Only then, naturally, can he find himself.
Romantic comedies always raise the question of chemistry between the leads. Both Schwimmer and Paltrow are charming presences, but they cancel each other out because their energy is so similar. Both are pouting, mooning, teary, withdrawn souls – and there is just no spark of any sort between them.
The Pallbearer is an extremely dissatisfying movie. Debuting director and co-writer Matt Reeves has little control of nuance, timing and mood. Secondary roles such as those given to Michael Rapaport and Toni Collette are insubstantial or just plain irritating. And every potentially complex and intriguing emotional issue which the film raises is dropped or fumbled almost instantly.
© Adrian Martin November 1996