Homelessness: In Hollywood Movies–Saints–Fisher King (Robin Williams)

Viewers in search of an illuminating insight about the homeless people (and homelessness problem) should look anywhere but Hollywood.

No one expects movies to be accurate or realistic representations of relevant issues. Yet when it comes to the depiction of homelessness, Hollywood has taken a soft, benign, almost mythical l00k at one of America’s most disturbing problems. It’s not just that Hollywood has steered clear of this issue, but that the few movies made have presented a stereotypically sanitized portrait, turning the homeless into noble saints and misunderstood geniuses.

The latest example is provided by Kasi Lemmons’ Caveman’s Valentine, in which Samuel L. Jackson plays Romulus Ledbetter, a down on his luck Julliard-trained musician and gifted pianist. An outcast living in a netherworld on the edge of Manhattan, the delusional Romulus believes that his life is controlled by a powerful adversary he calls Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant. He engages in a dialogue with this impersonal presence, situated atop the Chrysler Building, which represents all the vices of the American way of life.

In the film’s cliched treatment, Romulus is a man caught on the edge between genius and madness. He’s drawn out of his “temporary insanity” to track down the killer of a young model, whose frozen corpse he discovers on a tree next to his cave-like dwelling. But who would believe the rantings of a paranoid schizophrenic Certainly not his daughter, a police officer still bruised by her parents’ separation. And certainly not his new privileged friends of Manhattan’s chic art world, who adopt him.

Aiming to be a Gothic thriller with spiritual overtones, Caveman is undermined by George Dawes Green’s pretentious script. Defying credibility, the narrative resorts to a routine Hollywood thriller in which a saintly mad man stands alone against the universe–and triumphs, hence reforming himself.

Caveman’s Valentine follows in the tradition of most Hollywood movies about the homeless. It’s no coincidence that many of these films were made in the early 1990s, following the greedy and corrupt 1980s. Their narratives often bring the jaded rich and famous to the brink of destruction by confronting them with homeless people, forcing them to do penance for their cynicism.

As original and fanciful as Terry Gilliam (Brazil) is as a filmmaker, he too fell victim to cliches in The Fisher King (1991), a mythical tale of redemption by Richard LaGravenese. Early on, a TV executive pitches a weekly comedy series about the homeless that will show them as “wacky and wise.” The movie that follows isn’t that series, but it’s burdened by a cluttered plot driven by a mawkish idea.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a sleek, mean-spirited radio star, an emblem of the 1980s cold-hearted excesses. His career ends, when a deranged caller on his talk show, taking his cue from the host’s insults, commits a mass murder in a yuppie bar. Three years later, the demoralized and barren Jack is at the end of his rope, when he meets Parry (Robin Williams), an eccentric derelict who takes his cues from visions of “cute little fat people.” A casualty of the bar tragedy, Parry isn’t a clinical case–like Romulus, he’s an educated man who once taught medieval history. Calling himself “the janitor of God,” he holds that the Holy Grail is “God’s symbol of divine grace,” with him as a knight on a special quest. A gentle soul, driven mad by grief, he’s chattering aimlessly and cavorting naked in Central Park.

At one point, disheveled, drunk and mistaken for a homeless man, Jack is about to be set on fire by vigilantes, when Parry, using a garbage-can lid as a shield and wearing a blanket as a cape, saves him from the attackers. In due course, the two redeem each other from their empty lives, each playing a contemporary version of the mythic hero who finds the Holy Grail.

In most films, the homeless possess prophetic powers or visions. In Caveman’s Valentine, Romulus sees mighty yellow rays emanating from the top of the Chrysler Building, and in Fisher King, Parry envisions an armored Red Knight riding a red horse, trailing billows of flame.

Even directors well attuned to the zeitgeist look badly out of touch when they attempt movies about more serious issues. Take John Hughes, king of 1980s youth movies, and Curly Sue, the story of con artists Curly Sue (Alison Porter), a smart girl, and Bill, her decent guardian (James Belushi), who wander into the path of a high-powered divorce lawyer, Grey (Kelly Lynch), when she hits Bill with her Mercedes.

A heart-tugging sentimentality is laid over the narrative, though Curly Sue, like the girl played by Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, is assured, precocious, and manipulative. When she tells Grey, “You got an awful lot of pillows for just one person,” the lawyer’s maternal stirrings are awakened. Then, an immaculately groomed Bill proves his talent by playing “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” on the piano in Grey’s lush apartment. Only in a Hollywood movie, would a lawyer take derelicts home, clean them up, buy them new clothes and discover they are just like she is–only more virtuous and in touch with their emotions.

Saintliness played the leading role in Tim Hunter’s The Saint of Port Washington, a heartfelt drama about Matthew (Matt Dillon), a gentle soul and victim of circumstances (a crane smashes a condemned building) that force him out on the street. Fragile and bewildered, Matthew is unable to fend for himself, and with no address for his assistance checks, he is left indigent and alone. Matthew is sent to the Fort Washington Armory, a city-operated shelter populated with homeless men.

Lyle Kessler’s script shows the evolution of friendship between Matthew and Jerry (Danny Glover), a kindly Vietnam vet out on the streets after his business partner has frittered away their money. Like Romulus, Jerry was once a middle-class husband and father. Spunky and resourceful, as most homeless people are in movies, Jerry takes Matthew under his wing and teaches him how to clean windshields, only to realize that even this job is too much for the childlike Matthew. Once Jerry grasps Matthew’s helplessness, he becomes his protector–and surrogate father.

With the exception of a token villain (Ving Rhames), all the characters are virtuous, just on a run of bad luck; drugs, alcohol and crime are hardly mentioned. Like Parry in Fisher King, Matthew turns the tables in the relationship by pulling Jerry up from the gutter end. But it doesn’t strengthen the film that a cloak of nobility is draped over it. Matthew becomes the community’s saint, and the film advances the cliche concept that he possesses healing power over those he encounters. An eccentric, Matthew is seen snapping pictures with a camera that has no film inside.

Alek Keshishian dived into maudlin material in Without Honors, a film about how rich Harvard students befriend a spirited derelict and learn there’s more to life than careers. Mixing elements from Down and Out in Beverly Hills and The Paper Chase, With Honors is a politically correct saga about the redemption of Monty (Brendan Fraser), a student of politics whose preppie good looks betray shy and sincere demeanor.

Clearly more comfortable with Harvard than skid row, the movie suffers from a contrived setup. When his computer crashes and his thesis vanishes, Monty carries his only printout to a copy store, but it falls through a sidewalk grate. Simon (Joe Pesci), who lives in the library’s basement, recovers it. Sensing benefits, he negotiates a shrewd deal, selling Monty a page at a time in exchange for food, shelter, and bath.

Should you wonder what Simon was doing in the library, the script comes with an answer: he was reading Emil Zola’s Germinal, which signals the message that homeless people like Romulus, Parry, and Simon can be educated and even erudite. But Simon comes across as a zany caricature: In an obligatory scene in movies about the homeless, he takes a bubble bath while wearing a Viking helmet and singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And he offers a most idealized take on homelessness: a sidewalk philosopher who outsmarts a renowned professor (played by Gore Vidal) and gets a rousing applause from the class.

Wearing its heart and politics on its sleeves, the drama turns symbolic in its depiction of the surrogate parenthood issue, with Simon functioning as a lovable father figure. We learn that, like Romulus, Simon left his wife and young son decades ago and that, like Matthew, Monty was abandoned by his dad.

The slickness of Hollywood movies about the homeless is deeply cynical. Replete with saccharine and banality, they belong to the touchy-feely school of moviemaking. Blending satire, whimsy, and fantasy sequences, they propagate the simplistic theory that the homeless are smarter and saintlier than other people.

Rather than stick to the plain, hard facts, they become metaphorical, contrasting the sacred and the profane, and showing that more important than the characters’ economic survival is their spiritual quest for redemption. Contrived and too neat for the harsh conditions they describe, they offer no clues as to how society should deal with the homeless. Their benign approach can’t disguise the fact that they have little to say about a painful problem.

There may be a graceful, responsible way of tackling homelessness on the big-screen, but Hollywood hasn’t discovered it yet.

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