The Pallbearer

The PallbearerSynopsis: Hot star David Schwimmer makes a hilarious big-screen debut in this outrageous comedy hit! As Tom Thompson, the popular star plays a befuddled college grad whose social life is practically D.O.A….that is, until he’s asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral of a classmate he can’t remember! Comic chaos follows as Tom fends off the seductive advances of the grieving mother (Barbara Hershey), and tries desperately to find the nerve to ask out the beautiful girl of his dreams (Gwyneth Paltrow)- who can’t remember him!

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The Pallbearer 6.0

eyelights: Barbara Hershey. Carol Kane. the basic premise
eyesores: Gwynneth Paltrow. David schwimmer’s character.

“He wasn’t my best friend. I hardly knew him!”

‘The Pallbearer’ is a 1996 romantic comedy starring David Schwimmer, then-hot off the success of ‘Friends’. It was his first big screen vehicle; he had thus far only gotten a few bit parts and/or been in ensemble comedies. It came and went generally unnoticed and is largely forgotten.

It tells the story of Tom, a schlumpy 25-year-old who is asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral of someone he doesn’t know. Too timid and awkward to reveal the truth, he sinks even deeper into the situation, being called upon to say the eulogy and getting involved with the boy’s grieving mom, Ruth (Barbara Hershey).

One night at an engagement party for his best friend and his fiancé, he discovers that Julie (Gwynneth Paltrow), a girl he had a crush on in high school, has returned to town. He finally decides attempts to woo her, all the while trying to hide from her that he still lives with his mom (Carol Kane).

Naturally, his many relationships come into conflict and hilarity supposedly ensues, after which Tom gets his Hollywood Ending.

Ahem.

I first saw this on home video when it was released at the time. Between Schwimmer’s lovable loser schtick and Paltrow’s then-freshness, I was mildly intrigued. The fact that it was an offbeat number (a romantic comedy called ‘The Pallbearer’?) also helped – I’ve long enjoyed watching movies that are off the beaten path.

But, frankly, I was unimpressed, and I pretty much forgot about it. But when I decided to watch ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral‘ and ‘Chaos and Cadavers‘ it seemed time to unearth ‘The Pallbearer’ and give it another chance. I hoped that time (and my expanding tastes) might have given it a new lease on life.

Not a chance.

‘The Pallbearer’ is as unlovable as it was nearly twenty years ago: the characters (especially the lead!) are a chore to watch, the performances are uneven, situations that should mine comic gold don’t and the rest are too unfathomable to bear. This is one serious misfire, a good idea gone horribly wrong.

Take David Schwimmer as Tom. You want to care about the guy, but he does so many stupid things (beyond being incapable of landing a job and getting out of his mom’s house) that he becomes too pathetic to respect. He’s also such a selfish lout and an oaf that you want to see him fail; he doesn’t deserve any success.

Then there’s Paltrow as Julie: she is mysteriously uninteresting. Aside from being cute (in a fragile dork sort of way), she really has nothing going for her – and Tom has nothing in common with her. Paltrow mumbles her way through her performance as though she just overdosed on Novocaine. She’s painful to watch.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bunch. Michael Rapaport is funny as Brad, one of Tom’s best friends, although his performance is over-the-top, and Michael Vartan is congenial enough as his other friend, Scott. But, aside for his good looks, he doesn’t display any real on-screen magnetism. He just is.

Forget their girlfriends (one of which is played by Toni Colette), who are either forgettable or grating: it’s the moms that are worth watching. I’m no fan of Barbara Hershey (especially bleached blonde! Ick), but she smoulders here as Ruth. And Carol Kane is hilarious as Tom’s mom, who has boundary issues.

Most of the humour is rooted in these boundary issues: between Tom and his mom (she treats him like a 12-year-old), between Tom and his friends (he keeps asking to borrow their clothes!) and between Tom and Ruth (with whom he is incapable of speaking the truth and gets imposed upon incessantly).

Unfortunately, it becomes old very quickly because all of those issues are easily remedied. Watching someone bumble something as simple as speaking up and/or  standing up for themselves is not exactly hilarious. And watching people taking advantage of that inability is certainly not any better.

Then there are key sequences that fall flat, such as when Tom gives his eulogy. He spends time with his friends writing one up, without any knowledge of the person they’re writing it for – so we expect some clever inventions. Instead, Tom’s eulogy is extremely brief. And unfunny. What happened to all that brainstorming?

Another scene has Tom going to Ruth’s brother’s pool party. He had forgotten all about it and didn’t bring his swim suit. When they show up, he’s wearing outdated speedos. End of scene. There is no mining of the awkwardness of his being there or the dynamics between the characters. The scene just dies there.

I can only recall laughing the one time: while Tom is doing his eulogy – not because of its content, but because of the dead silence, punctuated by his friends trying to keep their composure. The actors were good enough that they blurred the line between crying and laughing, making it credible. And funny.

And the only moment that was touching to me, in the whole movie, was a moment when Scott is kicked out by his girlfriend (for reasons that remain unexplained) and he bunks down with Tom. They lie there in Tom’s room and reminisce about the girls in high school. That felt real, and their bond seemed credible.

For that one moment.

Beyond that, however, ‘The Pallbearer’ is largely unbelievable, grossly unfunny, and a drag to get through. I wouldn’t say that it’s appalling, exactly, but it could have been done far better – if Woody Allen had gotten his hands on it, for instance. His fear of death aside, he would have brought this to life.

Not put it six feet under, where it currently finds itself.

Date of viewing: January 12, 2015

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