Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez

It's a common fate of yesterday's stars to end up, at the end of their lives, starring in low budget films. This can be tragic or exploitative, and a lot of great actors have a really crappy flick as their last. Sometimes, it can even lead to a career resurgence, or a second wind.

And so we come to the last film of one of the hardest working actors of the past 60 years: Ernest Borgnine as The Man Who Shook The Hand of Vicente Fernandez, a really wonderful close to a wonderful career. (Not that Borgnine wasn't in a ton of schlock, but he was always enjoyable to watch.)

The 95-year-old goes out as "Ricochet" Rex Page, a former DJ who is obsessed with a role he didn't get some 45 years ago in a low-budget Western  called The Good Man Who Died Bad.  He's so obsessed that he watches an old video of the movie (the only one in existence, according to his daughter) over and over again, and his 10-year-old grand-daughter can recite the parts with him.

As it turns out, he flubs the closing monologue, probably at the time of the audition (though it's not spelled out) and even now, decades later. Despite this, and despite being really old, ol' Rex is on the phone with his agent (the same one from decades ago, apparently) and on the ball for the next big score.

The story starts when he has a stroke (I think that's what it was) and ends up in the Rancho Park Assisted Living Center, which is run by one of its members (the great Barry Corbin, playing older) in the fashion of a bad-ass gunslinger in a one-horse town.

This is the movie's central conceit, and it is adorable. Rex comes in as the man-with-no-name and is slowly won to the service of the Latino staff, to whom he becomes a hero when it's discovered that, as a DJ, he once shook the hand of Vicente Fernando, a legendary musician the staff adores (and whose concert is a central plot point). Their faith in him fulfills a longstanding desire to be somebody and gives him strength to fight the evil Walker clan. ("Walkers", get it?)

So, the whole movie is set up as a spaghetti western taking place in an old folks' home. This conceit kept us laughing throughout most of the movie. It's corny and overdone at points, but it's still just really funny, thanks in no small part to Ernest's earnestness.

The dramatic parts are also a little corny and ham-handed, but very good-natured and enjoyable nonetheless—and they ultimately work as a dramatic arc for a lovable curmudgeon.

Borgnine is remarkably vigorous for a 95-year-old. I wouldn't say his performance is perfect. There are times when he stumbles over his lines in a way that suggests that, either for budget reasons or due to his age, they didn't re-shoot. He's comfortable as a crotchety character (a la McHale) but less so as an angry one, which he must be a couple of times here.

Perhaps he had less far to fall than Peter O'Toole, but his acting here was about what it was 30-35 years ago, and I could've easily believed he had another 5-10 years left in him. (Whereas I was surprised to see O'Toole still alive after 2006's Venus.) This is more like Christopher Plummer in The Man In The Chair, who has followed up with several more great performances.

The movie itself is nicely filmed, jam-packed with shots recalling the old Westerns, with its low budget only showing up in a few obvious ways, such as close shots on crowd scenes. Ruy Folguera's music, too, occasionally suffers. Sometimes it's spot-on, but in a couple of already heavy-handed scenes, the dolorous and cloying celeste (or more likely the celeste setting on a synthesizer) is almost overpowering.

The movie's strength is the Western parody/homage, because it ends up speaking to the nature of human dignity and desire for respect. The weakness is spelling it out. Nonetheless, we all enjoyed it.

It doesn't seem to be getting a big roll out. Borgnine is not the box office draw he once was (or was he?) and the producers seem to be focusing on turning out the Latino community for this. But it's a fun little romp, sweet, with a nice ending.

Check it out.

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