By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Remember newspapers? They’re those things old ladies would line their birdcages with or hobos would use as blankets. Somehow they also started wars and deposed Presidents, although it’s unclear how exactly.
Maybe it’s related to the Batboys
Anyway, Absence of Malice is a tale from the long-ago times when everybody cared what was in them. Sally Field is a go-getting reporter who makes an allegation in print that a mob boss’s son (Paul Newman) had a hand in the disappearance of a dockworker’s union leader. Well… he didn’t, and the effect of the inaccurate story ripples outwards to hurt all involved, especially a timid young woman (Melinda Dillon) who is his alibi.
This is a story about the destructiveness of yellow journalism that never resorts to yellow journalism tactics itself. There are no real out-and-out villains here, and Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay does a good job of grounding the actions of all of his characters in understandable goals and desires. It’s a story of human weakness instead of villainy, making it all the more sad. It’s also well-plotted, building on itself in a series of reveals and escalating moral quandaries.
Sidney Pollack was an actor’s director, and his main contribution here is balancing plot and tone and the contributions of his able cast. This film got a fair amount of Oscar love with Dillon’s small, tragic role as a woman trapped between family and culture and helping her friend drawing a nomination. Paul Newman plays to his strengths- portraying a man of strong convictions and resolve in the face of adversity. It’s those same qualities that make his eventual decisions so affecting.
Sally Field’s journey is the heart of the film- the manipulative but competent and even likable reporter who learns firsthand the price of her negligence. Bob Balaban plays against type as a no-nonsense cop more than willing to bend or break the rules to get who he thinks is his man, but the supporting actor crown goes to Wilford Brimley.
Wilford. Fucking. Brimley.
He rides in on the diabetic nag of justice and straight-up steals the movie, setting everybody straight with delightfully cornpone burns, pronouncing “subpoenas” as “subpeonies” , then tossing everybody’s “asses in his briefcase” and riding off into the sunset.
For as well-acted and competently made as this film is, it’s just missing something. There’s no real “oomph” factor, nothing that you’ll want to talk about after the film. It’s hard to pinpoint why- perhaps that in the end nothing surprising happens. As well paired and lovingly maintained as this road is, you know where it’s going.
Unnecessary and sorta nonsensical sex scene? Check.
I don’t know what movie they showed Dave Grusin, but it wasn’t Absence of Malice. Maybe it was The Goonies. His score, in typical 80s fashion, is full of adventure and whimsy, while the movie is full of abortion and suicide and fallen ideals. It’s… not a great fit.
Absence of Malice is a very solid drama with some quality acting and just enough Wilford Brimley to seal the deal.
Take a Drink: for printing montages
Take a Drink: for “state of the art” technology
Take a Drink: for coffee and/or cigarettes
Take a Drink: for every new consequence of the news story
Do a Shot: whenever you hear a variation of the title