‘The Pallbearer’

The Postgrad

‘Friends’ star in lightweight comedy

By Richard von Busack

AN ALTERNATE TITLE for The Pallbearer could be The Postgraduate. The film is a new study on the old subject of what happens when school ends. The hero is spending a few awful months living with mom; he’s girlfriendless, feeling like a 22-year-old child and hunting around, in a desperate but irresolute manner, for work. If this wispy, exceedingly minor movie makes its mark, it will be because, like its predecessor The Graduate, it sounds out the frustrations of a generation of young people leaving school, fearful–as well they might be–of abandoning the nest.

The highly Dustin Hoffman-like actor David Schwimmer may also rope in an audience for The Pallbearer. Schwimmer is the Jughead type on Friends. Every movie or TV show about young people always has to have some unkempt comedy relief, just like the original Jughead Jones in the Archie comics. Schwimmer fits the bill–unkempt, goofy, and sleepy-eyed in the midst of the best-looking group of allegedly average people in America.

As the hopeless Tom Thompson in The Pallbearer, he’s frustrated and imprisoned in the New York boroughs somewhere, as the Bruce Jay Friedman title has it, Far from the City of Class. One day, Thompson receives a phone call from the grieving mother of one Bill Abernathy, a friend who has just committed suicide.

The bereaved mother wants Thompson to be one of the pallbearers at the funeral, a request he can’t refuse–despite the fact that he has no recollection of the deceased, who is a blank spot in the school yearbook, with the italicized caption “Chess Club.” Thompson ends up being not only a pallbearer but the reciter of the eulogy at the funeral, and his best comic moment comes when he tries to figure out some ideas to match the theme, “Who was Bill Abernathy?”

The funeral doesn’t end the imposture. Thompson winds up in uncomfortably close quarters consoling Mrs. Abernathy (a cool, poisonously tough performance by Barbara Hershey) even as he sets his sights on a nervous girl named Julie (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is about to leave on some sort of vaguely planned trip.

Just as Anne Bancroft’s chained giant of a housewife, Mrs. Robinson, tends to drown out memories of Katharine Ross in The Graduate, so does Hershey overwhelm the run-of-the-mill schoolgirl for whom Thompson pines to the score of Erik Satie’s music. I haven’t heard any Satie on screen since Pachelbel’s Canon cornered the market on tasteful cinematic classical.

It may be that the movie needed some tastefulness in the music, what with Carol Kane’s bellowing bit as Thompson’s mom and Michael Rappaport as his coarse best friend. Seeing Rappaport in his debut in the atmospheric independent film Zebrahead, I’d thought that he was going to go places; having seen Beautiful Girls and Mighty Aphrodite, I wish he would.

As for Schwimmer, he’s reasonably likable, but he has only one note; he’s a worm who will never turn very much. And the movie shares his lackadaisical mood. It’s tentative, hangdog, and unfinished, with a reconciliation that seems false, considering the fierceness that Hershey shows–she’s as hungry as only a 50-year-old actress can be in a business where you’re old by the time you hit 29.

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