Tuesday December 24, 1996
A good fiction writer looking for inspiration could do worse than to take a stroll through Central Park and just keep his eyes and his imagination open. As we used to hear, there are 8 million stories in the Naked City, but the hundreds you'll find on any given day in Central Park are there for a reason.
Take those old guys over there on the bench, yelling at each other. One black, one white. Are they friends or enemies, what are they arguing about, and why are they here, day after day?
Playwright Herb Gardner claims to have happened onto that precise scene in Central Park and was so fascinated by the questions and answers that popped into his head that he dropped everything else to write his hit Broadway comedy "I'm Not Rappaport." The play opened in New York in 1986 and has been produced all over the world since.
Now, it's a movie, adapted and directed by Gardner himself, co-starring wily veterans Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis, and though it loses something in the transition, it's a holiday gem.
So, who are these old guys, as Gardner imagined them, and what do they have to say to each other that has captivated audiences on six continents? Friends? Not at first. Enemies? Not quite. And why do they end up on the same bench every day? Therein lies the tale.
Matthau's Nat and Davis' Midge spend large parts of their days in Central Park because it's there, and they have nothing better to do. And they share so much of their time together because any kind of relationship is better than none at all.
At an earlier time, Nat and Midge wouldn't have noticed each other. But both are now 81, reasonably healthy and mentally alert, and wrestling with the overwhelming notion that their lives have become disposable.
Nat's daughter Clara (Amy Irving) is convinced by his erratic behavior as the neighborhood rabble-rouser that he should either come to live with her family on Long Island or move to a seniors' home. Neither option is acceptable to a man still clinging to his self-image as a spirited, and useful, revolutionary.
Midge, who's been the superintendent of a nearby apartment house for nearly a half-century, is being forced out by the building's new owners. For him, that building, and its older tenants, are the only family and identity he has.
So, Nat and Midge use each other as wobbly props, finding through their give-and-take some stimulation, through their grudging affection some purpose and through a series of dramatic events a sense of brotherhood. Among those events: recurring run-ins with a park punk (Guillermo Diaz) who extorts money from the elderly in exchange for their safe passage; an improbable scheme to rescue a young woman (Martha Plimpton) from her ruthless drug supplier (Craig T. Nelson); and Nat's histrionic efforts, passing himself off as a lawyer, to scare Midge's boss into saving his job.
Gardner would have done well to abandon the drug rescue operation, which has Nat dressing up as a Mafia boss and trying to intimidate Nelson's streetwise dealer with B-movie dialogue. In a film that is otherwise grounded in realism, the idea is preposterous, and the violent end to the sequence is much too jolting.
The great strength of "I'm Not Rappaport," on stage and on the screen, is what takes place on that park bench, where Nat comes each day to try to hook Midge with elaborate hoaxes about his exciting past as, among other things, a Cuban spy and a Hollywood mogul. The truth, once Nat reveals it, is such a letdown that Midge rejects it out of hand.
These old pros play wonderfully off each other. It's good to see Matthau do something besides grumpy old men shtick with his pal Jack Lemmon. You can forget what a fine actor he is. There's plenty of shtick for him to do as Nat; the title refers to an old vaudeville joke, and there is an air of burlesque to many of Matthau's monologues. But he's creating an entire life in two hours, and of someone we come to care very much about.
Davis' role is less developed in the script. Midge, to continue the vaudeville analogy, plays the straight man to Nat's meandering whimsy. But he is also the pivotal character. It is his reactions to Nat that move the story toward its subtle epiphanies.
Davis, with that molasses baritone and his darting, intelligent eyes, grounds "I'm Not Rappaport" in ways that make that park bench look like home to all of us.
I'm Not Rappaport, 1996. PG-13, for drug content and momentary violence. A Greenstreet Production, released by Gramercy. Written and directed by Herb Gardner, from his play. Producers John Penotti, John Starke. Camera Adam Holender. Editors Wendey Stanzler, Emily Paine. Music Gerry Mulligan. Production design Mark Friedberg. Art director Ginger Tougas. Costumes Jennifer Von Mayrhauser. Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes. Walter Matthau as Nat Moyer. Ossie Davis as Midge Carter. Amy Irving as Clara Gelber. Martha Plimpton as Laurie Campbell. Craig T. Nelson as The Cowboy. Boyd Gaines as Pete Danforth.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times