Festival Nouveau Cinéma 2009: Handsome Harry

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Handsome Harry
Handsome Harry

Handsome Harry
Directed by Bette Gordon

A spectacular cast and a deliberate tone help to distract from director Bette Gordon’s Handsome Harry, which acts both as an emotionally detailed character study and a slightly ungainly road movie. The titular Harry (Jamey Sheridan), an aging ex-Navy electrician, is shaken from his cozy small-town existence when he receives a call from an old Navy buddy (Steve Buscemi), who is dying of a dire, unnamed disease. He summons Harry to his deathbed to exact one final wish: to track down Kagan (Campbell Scott), the old cohort that Harry, along with Buscemi and a gaggle of their Navy buddies, viciously assaulted following a wild night at sea. Bound by a sense of duty, Harry travels to Miami to find Kagan, dropping in on the rest of his old crew along the way, who are played to the hilt by an impressive array of character actors, including Titus Welliver (Deadwood) as a quietly seething reformed Christian, Aidan Quinn as a professor who takes pains to hide his military backstory from his students, Karen Young as the local waitress who’s sweet on our protag, and John Savage as (in an obvious nod to The Deer Hunter) a war-damaged loon.

The most obvious knock against Harry is its hamhanded writing, which leans too heavily on its episodic framework as well as the shoehorning in of patches of blandly expository dialogue. Thankfully, old hands like the rock-solid Sheridan are able to make the words sing anyway, and much of the film gets by on his uneasy rapport with his long-separated comrades. Less welcome are the flashback sequences, which distract by taking us back in a physical sense to the scene and surroundings of the central incident – one better depicted in hushed tones by its various players, and in the emotional (and in one case, physical) demarcations left on those involved.

As Harry gets closer to reuniting with the reclusive Kagan, the most obviously unique facet of Gordon’s film turns out to be the way it approaches Harry’s difficult relationship with his own sexuality; Gordon is careful never to demonize either the men or women in his life, which might betray an obvious “path” and cheapen Harry’s dogged sense of uncertainty. That’s in sharp contrast with most coming-out as coming-of-age stories, which often paint a picture of a reconciled sense of sexuality as a confirmation of completeness. Handsome Harry, forall its narrative and directorial flaws, at least recognizes that the search for contendedness is never-ending and doesn’t conform to any binaries, be they social, sexual or memorial.

Simon Howell

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