by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 52ND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Pre-"Godfather" but post-"Finian’s Rainbow," Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed "The Rain People," a downbeat character drama Coppola produced with the help of his friends, including George Lucas, and his family (his wife Eleanor drove a truck during production). After "Finian’s Rainbow," a box office and critical failure soured Hollywood on Coppola, if only temporarily (the "Godfather" gig arrived two years later), Coppola wanted to make a personal film and turned to a screenplay he wrote in his early thirties. Admirable more for its place in Coppola’s oeuvre and for the guerilla filmmaking techniques Coppola used, "The Rain People" is, at best, an admirable failure, a necessary step in the evolution of Coppola as a world-class filmmaker.The Rain People centers on Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight), a pregnant Long Island housewife who flees her marriage to Vinny (Robert Modica) for parts unknown, and Jimmy Kilgannon (James Caan), a brain-damaged, ex-football player Natalie picks up on the side of the road. Natalie seems to crave adventure, maybe even a romantic fling with Jimmy, but once she notices Jimmy’s mental and emotional deficits, Natalie finds herself in a position she didn't want: responsibility for Jimmy. Jimmy claims, however, that he has a job waiting for him in West Virginia with Artie (Andrew Duncan), the father of his ex-girlfriend, Ellen (Laura Crews).
"An early, personal work from a filmmaker just about to hit his stride."
When, unsurprisingly, the trip to West Virginia fails, Natalie is left looking after Jimmy. In occasional phone calls to Vinny, Natalie tries to justify her actions. Her life of quiet desperation as a housewife, the responsibilities as a housewife and mother, the lack of independence, all play a role in Natalie’s justifications. After another attempt to find a job for Jimmy in Nebraska, Natalie meets Gordon (Robert Duvall), a highway policeman, who seems to offer Natalie what she wants: temporary escape from an unhappy future as a mother, housewife, and Jimmy’s reluctant caretaker.
In everything from the elliptical narrative style (including the obligatory flashbacks), to the pared-down visuals and on-location shooting, European art cinema (specifically the French New Wave) influenced Coppola’s writing and directing of The Rain People. In Natalie, the desperate housewife leading a quiet life of desperation, Coppola created a character that could have stepped out of a French New Wave film or Michelangelo Antonioni’s films (The Passenger, Blow-Up, Red Desert, The Eclipse). Coppola drew his inspiration for Jimmy closer to home: the Lenny character from John Steinback’s classic novella, Of Mice and Men. The dynamic between Natalie and Jimmy also draws its inspiration from Of Mice and Men. Jimmy also exhibits a fondness for animals (again, like Lenny) and the narrative leads to a similar dénouement for both Jimmy and Natalie.
Influences or inspiration aside, The Rain People is, to be blunt, a flawed film. Coppola over-relies on coincidence and contrivance multiple times, including, most egregiously, the final scene. The final scene neither cathartic in the classic (emotional) sense nor earned, more an ending because The Rain People needed one. Coppola’s use of music, deft in almost every other film, abandons him here. His reliance on a classically inspired song, rather than pop or rock tunes or even nothing at all, undermines The Rain People at key moments. Coppola should have trusted his instincts and merely used ambient sound (as he does most of the time).Still, "The Rain People" has its strengths, due largely to James Caan’s understated performance as Jimmy and Shirley Knight’s pitch-perfect performance as Natalie. Caan never oversells through overdone mannerisms or speech patterns and Knight keeps the histrionics usually associated with a “woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown” role in check. Duvall does what he can with an underwritten role, but his character’s emotional 180’s are rarely convincing. Ultimately, "The Rain People" is less interesting, let alone compelling, on its own than as part of Coppola’s varied oeuvre, an oeuvre defined by risks, rewards, successes, and on occasion, failure.
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originally posted: 05/02/09 19:21:01