Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean offers explicit, numbing testament to the assertion that you can never go home again. Juxtaposing two celebrations together over a 20-year period (one in 1955, the other in 1975), the play hinges on a series of discoveries that reveal the dreams of small-town Americana to be rife with illusion and hypocrisy. The characters, all women save for one, are stuck in a time warp, unable to accept that they’re pushing 40 and that their small Texas town has dried up to nothing more than a husk comprised of a few dusty road signs and gas stations. Nineteen fifty-five was briefly marked by hope, as the then-teenage members of a James Dean fan club were overjoyed to hear that the actor was going to be in nearby Marfa to shoot Giant. But that incidental brush with fame comes to haunt, and imprison, the characters for the rest of their lives. The Dean acolytes are stuck forever waiting for their icon, who represents a potential justification of the disappointment and drudgery that overtook their broke and broken lives, to return to them.
On its own, the play is actively stifling, interminable, awash in overwrought redneck-housewife clichés that speak to a “truth” that any rational adult accepts as a given, but Robert Altman’s film is characterized by a weird friction, as one can frequently sense the director’s inventive talent (which far surpasses the playwright’s) bumping up against the constraints of the material. The physical, bracingly tactile rhythm that Altman establishes with his superb cast is often virtuosic, emphasizing the characters’ entrances and exits as swift bits of physical jazz that strengthen the suggestion that the Dean fans almost consciously understand the five and dime as their own private stage, which informs the pointedly iconic setting with a dimension of pathos. Altman also recognizes something that’s key to navigating this material: There can be no half-measures, as one must commit fully to the pat mythos of the land-of-broken-dreams concept and dive in head-first with no sense of distancing irony. Irony, or any joke at all, would destroy Come Back to the Five & Dime, as it’s a fragile sandcastle fashioned out of self-pitying, faux-empathetic nonsense.
One misses Altman’s humor, but his joy of craftsmanship ultimately trumps Graczyk’s nostalgic fatalism, which inadvertently comes to support the very Americana it purports to deconstruct anyway. The set, reliant on a series of background mirrors that allow the filmmaker to fluidly fold the 1950s and 1970s timelines together into singular frames, physically bolsters the melancholia at the play’s center. Altman’s imagery contains a truth that eludes Graczyk’s seemingly endless monologues. When Joanne (Karen Black) looks into a mirror and sees the man she once was staring back at her, for instance, we’re allowed to mercifully intuit her pain and confusion for ourselves while reveling in the amazing beauty of the director’s staging. The film, despite its subject matter, is really about survival, and Altman’s willingness, need, and ability to render art out of anything.
Grain is distractingly heavy at times, and background details can be hazy, but these aren’t significant issues. Foreground clarity is soft, but purposefully so, as the film is clearly intended to have a homey, luminous warmth. Colors are generally earthy and attractive, particularly the pinks and browns that dominate the cinematography. The mono track is clean and honors Altman’s characteristically subtle sound mixing, though this film doesn’t require much heavy lifting in the aural department.
Playwright Ed Graczyk is admirably blunt about his dissatisfaction with Robert Altman’s adaptation of his work, mostly for the stage, but also for the screen. Altman fans will probably find some of Graczyk’s sentiments churlish (such as his objection to the filmmaker’s mirror motif, which often nearly salvages the material), but it’s refreshing to hear an artist speak of the actual day-to-day difficulties of collaboration with another talent. And that’s it, unfortunately. It’s disappointing that Graczyk didn’t record an audio commentary, as it could’ve provided a fascinating counter-opinion to those who probably value the film solely as a footnote in the career of a significant American director.
A sturdy, few-frills transfer of a film that’s only for Robert Altman’s most devoted admirers. Those folks will find, among the nonsense, a testament to the filmmaker’s invigoratingly adaptable talent and humanity.