Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? As mentioned, I had seen this before. It was many years ago, and I may have been slightly too young to really get it. My expectation was that it would be very good but just a touch overrated.
What did I get? Boy, was that expectation all wrong. Five Easy Pieces is a sublime piece of work. It turns out that its status as a culty touchstone for a thriving generation of gritty and realistic American moviemaking is richly merited. It’s a great American movie.
The magnitude of Rafelson’s achievement is that the two worlds the movie inhabits, the California oilfields and the family island in the Pacific Northwest, feel utterly authentic and are depicted as being annoying — without either realm ever becoming remotely annoying to us. The movie’s great strength is that it is not in the least hyperbolic, which prevents the material from becoming tendentious. If the filmmakers had overdrawn any of the points they were trying to make, the movie would be almost unbearable — and perhaps even more popular than it is. But they managed to show the irritants and frustrations of American life without turning any of it into a hellscape or a parody. It’s all recognizable and real and vaguely disappointing, and the central character, Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea, happens to be really damn attuned to that disappointment.
Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman show marvelous control over types, characters, archetypes (Bobby’s brother Carl is “the cuckold”). Five Easy Pieces shares a technique with the previous #1, Diary of a Mad Housewife, which is the conscious use of caricature and exaggeration in the service of a narrative about realistic characters. Five Easy Pieces does it somewhat better, of course. Every time you think that the movie might be straying, however slightly, into caricature, Whammo! Rafelson throws a real caricature at you (the malcontent hitchhiker, the pompous intellectual lady at the dinner party) to show you the difference.
Consider Rayette, Bobby’s California girlfriend. Throughout most of the movie, she’s supremely annoying. By the time she finally catches up to Bobby at the Dupea enclave, though, she’s noticeably excluded; she becomes the target of the aforementioned intellectual lady’s condescension, and her essential guilelessness makes it easier for the audience to embrace her. And we still understand and endorse Bobby’s final ostentatious gesture, even though he is making of Rayette a single mother.
What here smacks of 1970? This movie is so exquisitely attuned to society that one might well ask what in 1970 smacks of Five Easy Pieces. You almost have to ask which month in 1970 it smacks of. Five Easy Pieces captured the great mood of restless yearning and foreboding.
IMDB score: 7.5
My score: 10
Director: Bob Rafelson
Writer: Carole Eastman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Fannie Flagg, Sally Struthers, Ralph Waite, Lois Smith
IMDB synopsis: Robert Dupea has given up his promising career as a concert pianist and is now working in oil fields. He lives together with Rayette, who’s a waitress in a diner. When Robert hears from his sister that his father isn’t well, he drives up to Washington to see him, taking Rayette with him. There he gets confronted with his rich, cultured family that he had left behind.