Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, with Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes in theaters, we look at his first film, the 1996 romantic comedy The Pallbearer.
Careers in motion pictures don’t always proceed in orderly fashion from point A to B to C, but it’s still fairly wild that Matt Reeves, whose entries in the Planet of the Apes saga were so solid he was drafted to save Batman, made his feature directorial debut with a film mostly remembered as one of the many films that failed to turn the cast of Friends into movie stars. That film was The Pallbearer, a 1996 comedy/drama written off almost immediately as a second-rate rip-off of The Graduate; following its quick disappearance, Reeves spent a dozen years working in television before his next film, Cloverfield, which would plant him firmly in the realm of genre pictures he’s dwelled in since. So The Pallbearer is now a strange outlier, a bit of a false start for the future Apes-maker – but one worth revisiting, and even appreciating.
And it’s not just a starter movie for Reeves; he co-wrote with future Friday Night Lights and Parenthood adapter Jason Katims, who co-produced with Reeves’s frequent collaborator J.J. Abrams. Here and there, you’ll spot faces from their TV shows – Alias’s Michael Vartan pops up in a supporting role, and Abrams’s “good luck charm” Greg Grunberg appears in a wordless cameo. Reeves and Abrams developed Felicity after The Pallbearer, and the film opens with one of that show’s signature visuals: an uncertain protagonist walking the streets of New York in slow-motion, to soft pop music.
That protagonist is Tom Thompson (David Schwimmer), a recent college graduate who’s spent an aimless year living at home (there was much more shame wrapped up in this in the boom years of the late ‘90s) and is trying to finally get his life going. He’s not quite sure how; when a job interviewer asks where he sees himself in a year, he answers uncertainly: “Well on my way, sir. That’s where I see myself.” All around him, his friends are grown-ups, getting married and starting families; Tom can barely start a coherent sentence.
That uncertainty is perhaps why, when he’s contacted by Ruth Abernathy (Barbara Hershey) and asked to be a pallbearer for her son Bill, who recently committed suicide, Tom agrees – rather than admitting that he has no memory of Bill Abernathy whatsoever. And that situation snowballs when she subsequently asks him to deliver Bill’s eulogy. Reeves wrings some well-timed comedy-of-awkwardness out of the situation. There are dryly funny images of Tom and his friends (whom he’s begged to come, for moral support) wandering to their seats at this stranger’s funeral, approaching the casket in hope of some recognition, Tom opening his eulogy with the broad question, “Who is Bill Abernathy,” like a book report by someone who hasn’t done the reading. His friends snort and play those snorts off like weeping, but in the back of the chapel, Julie DeMarco looks at Tom in disappointment.
Julie DeMarco. He speaks her name like an incantation, the girl he loved in high school but never had the courage to speak to. She’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who was basically a contract player for Pallbearer distributor Miramax when the film was made, but she’s lovely and likable, even though it’s not the fullest character; we’re not sure exactly what she digs about Tom, especially when a truly terrible first date somehow prompts an almost-kiss. But a gentle sweetness eventually, credibly develops between them – though that explicit commonality with Friends did the film no comparative favors. Frankly, neither did Schwimmer, who chooses to basically play Tom as Ross Gellar with a Clooney-on-ER haircut.
But he handles several difficult moments well, chief among them the scene where the film plunges into Mrs. Robinson territory, as Tom and Mrs. Abernathy open themselves up to each other in a moment of mutual weakness. This is, needless to say, a very tricky bit of business, but it’s played with such delicacy, it works. Hershey finds the key to the character by honing in on her tentativeness and fragility – this is a beautiful woman who is aging, and suddenly unsure of herself. And, eventually, the focus becomes her anger and humiliation, which Reeves and Katims choose (wisely) to take seriously.
In fact, The Pallbearer does a full pivot into drama in the third act, which must’ve thrown audiences in 1996. But that places it much closer to the kind of work we expect from Reeves (and Katims, and Abrams) now. At its best, it sports a forgiving humanism – none of these people are all that bad, they’re just wounded and needy and uncertain. And luckily, the film has the right visual style to convey that grayness; the cinematographer is the great Robert Elswitt, who would go on to lens There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, and Good Night and Good Luck (among many others), so the striking, dreamlike visuals contrast with the flatness typical of ‘90s indie rom-coms. And honestly, it’s not really a rom-com anyway; it’s less a movie about Tom and Julie saving each other than one where they choose, finally, to save themselves. Or, as Tom’s pal asks him late in the movie: “What’s goin’ on here? Who are you these days?”