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After watching Robert De Niro sleepwalk through Mad Dog and Glory, it was a relief to see that someone had awakened the venerable actor in time for his next performance as an abusive stepfather in This Boy's Life. Unfortunately, whoever roused the sleeping Dog for the film adaptation of Tobias Wolff's poignant memoirs of growing up in the Fifties let him drink too much java. As auto mechanic Dwight Hansen, De Niro careens through This Boy's Life with all the restraint of a long-distance trucker on a steady diet of caffeine and crank. In the end he survives the journey, but not without bumping and grinding gears along the way.
One pivotal scene serves as a metaphor for De Niro's performance, even as it offers an insight into his character's mindset. A fuming Hansen is driving a fearful Wolff from Seattle, where the boy has been living with his mother, to the uptight little mountain burg of Concrete, where the lad will be spending several months under his soon-to-be-stepdad's wing. It's night and they're traversing dangerous, unlit highway. "Your fancy days are over," Mr. Badwrench tells the cowering teen. "You're a Concrete boy now."
For emphasis the flat-topped grease monkey guns the car's motor, screeching over treacherous mountain roads with callous disregard for the boy's (or his own) safety. Hansen and De Niro are both out to make a point; if they crash and burn in the process, so be it.
Hansen's point is that he is not going to take any guff from the kid. De Niro's point is that he can still deliver the acting goods, even at the risk of going over the top. (After all, overacting in Scent of a Woman didn't hurt Al Pacino's career any.) De Niro recycles bits and pieces of his earlier work A Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Max Cady A but he augments them with some inspired, original moments, as well. (And recycled De Niro is often preferable to other actors at their peak.) While his performance here will not make anyone forget De Niro's Academy Award-winning turns as Jake La Motta or Vito Corleone, it's a hell of a lot easier to stomach than Backdraft, Stanley and Iris, Falling in Love, Guilty by Suspicion, or Mad Dog and Glory.
Which is not to say that the Dwight Hansen who makes it to the screen is the Dwight Hansen of Wolff's memoirs. Even if you haven't read Wolff's text, you can feel the soft spots where the filmmakers tried to putty over the holes and pound out the dents in Dwight's personality until he's as flat and two-dimensional as a cartoon. Screenwriter Robert Getchell also scripted Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, a heavy-handed movie about an independent woman and her precocious son trying to make it in a world that isn't exactly hospitable to single mothers. You get the feeling that the decision to make the control-freak mechanic with a redwood-size chip on his shoulder so maddeningly irrational and broadly cretinous was Getchell's rather than Wolff's or De Niro's; Dwight Hansen is only a rung or two higher on the Darwinian ladder than Ben, the philandering wife-beater played by Harvey Keitel in Alice.
Particularly suspect is the film's depiction of the bedroom scene on the night of Hansen's wedding to Wolff's mother. "I don't like to see the face," he tells her. "You can get it doggie style or you can get it laying on your side. Those are your only two choices. This is my house and I get to say. Got it?"
Loud and clear, Dwight. What we don't get is why a resourceful woman who's already left two men for less egregious crimes would stick around and take that crap from a bitter, anal-retentive auto repairman. (The filmmakers were apparently aware of this failure. They make a lame attempt to explain it away by having her say something totally out of character A "I don't have another get-up-and-go left in me.") You just know it wasn't that simple, as surely as you know the Dwight Hansen of Wolff's 1989 book was more complex than the ogre/buffoon presented here. Otherwise, young Mr. Wolff and his long-suffering mama would have bailed out much sooner.
Luckily for all concerned, someone had the good sense to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as the rebellious teenage Wolff. (It's the second time a Getchell screenplay has been partially salvaged by a talented youngster. Although Ellen Burstyn won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Jodie Foster stole every scene she appeared in and gave that picture a much-needed kick.) As a sneering, ducktailed Elvis wanna-be, DiCaprio reveals the vulnerability beneath the juvenile delinquent faaade; as a buzz-cut Boy Scout with a paper route making a concerted effort to reform, he reverses polarity and shows us the tough-mindedness and defiant spirit beneath the obedient exterior. And in a scene where the young Wolff lampoons Hansen's transparently solicitous courting of his mother, DiCaprio's expert skewering of De Niro demonstrates just how close to caricature the latter thespian's performance treads.
Ironically, this eighteen-year-old intuitively conveys the subtlety and wit that his elders either failed to grasp or lacked faith in. The Hollywood treatment makes a tolerable movie out of what could have been a very good one. Ultimately, it is only DiCaprio who makes the most of This Boy's Life.
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