A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
At first the shape simply seems to be some old debris, blown up against the side of a building, but then the shape stirs and we see that it is a man. At first we cannot quite make out his face, and when we can and see that the character is played by Jack Nicholson, there is a shock, for even in that first moment he seems to have been enveloped by the character. A little later in “Ironweed” when we see Meryl Streep, there is a similar shock, not so much because of her appearance but because of her voice, which is an amalgam of high-class breeding and low-class usage.
Nicholson and Streep play drunks in “Ironweed,” and actors are said to like to play drunks, because it gives them an excuse for overacting. But there is not much visible “acting” in this movie; the actors are too good for that. Nicholson plays a man haunted by guilt from his past. He dropped and killed his baby son years ago and has never forgiven himself. He left home soon after and dropped like a stone until he hit the gutters of Albany, his hometown, where he still lives. Streep’s guilt is less dramatic; she let herself down, or that is what she believes, for she does not understand that it is not her own fault she is a drunk.
“Ironweed,” directed by Brazilian Hector Babenco, whose familiarity with the human sewers of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janiero made “Pixote” one of the best films of 1981, is a movie of moods, locales and voices. It is not much on plot, and even when something dramatic happens - when the Nicholson character returns home after many years to face his family - the scene is played for the silences as much as for the noises. It is probably a fault of the film that it contains so little drama. We quickly sense that hopelessness is a condition of this movie, that since alcoholism has been accepted as a fact of life, none of the other facts will be able to change. The movie generates little suspense and no relief.
And yet it is worth seeing as a chamber piece, an exercise in which two great actors expand their range and work together in great sympathy. Both Nicholson and Streep have moments as good as anything they have done. Nicholson’s come in a graveyard scene at the beginning of the film and in the long stretch after he returns to his home.