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Fine acting isn't nearly enough to save this movie

Published Oct. 16, 2005

If you can read these words, you won't need to see the new movie Stanley and Iris, starring Jane Fonda and Robert DeNiro. This inept and unrealistic love story about an illiterate man who learns to read and write, and his relationship with the woman who teaches him, has only one thing to keep it interesting: its message that literacy is good for you.

In spite of its double-star billing, Stanley and Iris is a slow, bland and aimless look at two working-class characters trying to overcome their shortcomings. Too bad the biggest problems here are not those of the characters, but those of director Martin Ritt.

Jane Fonda stars as Iris King, a recently widowed woman working at a large bakery in an economically depressed town. Iris carries not only her own grievous burden, but those of her pregnant daughter (Martha Plimpton) and her live-in unemployed sister.

Iris is their flawless pillar of strength, so it's no surprise that she accepts the pleas of fellow worker Stanley Cox, an illiterate man who wants to learn how to read and write. DeNiro stars as the simple, uneducated and unbelievably eloquent Stanley.

Their interest in each other is apparent from the opening scenes, so viewers may wonder why the film takes so much time getting under way. Screenwriters Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch bring several peripheral characters from Pat Barker's novel Union Street, such as Iris' sister and Stanley's dying father.

Sister Sharon (Swoosie Kurtz) and her husband conveniently disappear from the movie after serving their purpose, as does Stanley's dad, who seems to die only hours after being put into a nursing home.

DeNiro is nicely understated here, much as he was in his low-key performance in last year's Jacknife. Like that movie, Stanley and Iris is so well-intentioned that you want to like it at least a little, but even the kindest audiences may have a difficult time.

Fonda has some good scenes that make us yearn for the actress who was so magnetic and watchable in Klute. She proves she's still alive and kicking and has only to find a script that will provide a character worthy of her talents.

But the fact remains that were it not for these two confident presences, Stanley and Iris would have few redeeming qualities, save for a moody but likable performance by Plimpton.

Stanley's actions are often inconsistent with his character. He's a slack-faced, grimy simpleton in one scene, a well-spoken, well-groomed romantic in the next. And in an improbable revelation, Stanley is shown to be such a brilliant inventor that he's offered jobs by big companies that pay well.

There's probably a good movie to be made about illiteracy, but this isn't it. Stanley learns to read and write so quickly and so joylessly that any illiterate people watching the movie will wonder what all the fuss is about.

John Williams provides the score and has whittled down his usual manipulative and sweeping orchestral music to a light, almost inaudible piano. It's music tailored for an unassuming "little" movie and goes nicely with the warm autumn colors cinematographer Donald McAlpine uses to paint each scene.

Because of the alarming illiteracy rate in this country, Stanley and Iris is admirable for its subject matter only. Even so, it's ultimately a no-lose situation. If illiterates aren't moved by Stanley and Iris, we can at least tell them that the book is probably better than the movie.

MOVIE REVIEW Stanley And Iris X X Cast: Jane Fonda, Robert DeNiro, Martha Plimpton, Swoosie Kurtz Director: Martin Ritt Screenplay: Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, from the novel Union Street by Pat Barker Cinematography: Donald McAlpine Production Design: Joel Schiller Editor: Sidney Levine Music: John Williams Rating: PG-13; profanity Excellent XXXXX; Very good XXXX;

Good XXX; Mediocre XX; Poor X