"Facades to Cover the Pain"
I’M NOT RAPPAPORT is a cleverly written and brilliantly performed Tony Award-winning play that is not quite ready for the big screen. It tells the story of octogenarian Nat Moyer (Walter Matthau), a modern day Don Quixote with a Communist and labor union background, who roams around Central Park West, New York, looking for oppressors to skewer. He enlists the very reluctant help of a Sancho-like octogenarian named Midge Carter (Ossie Davis), who wants merely to hold onto his boiler room job at a yuppie inhabited tenant building for just a few more months. Together they fight the forces of oppression in Nat’s romanticized style, with some initial success, but much like Don Quixote and Sancho, they are soon brought back to the harsh realities of New York’s Central Park.
As a young boy at a 1909 Fur Union Workers rally, Nat was inebriated with the heady socialist philosophy. Ben Gold, the union leader, and Clara Lemlich the outspoken union worker stirred the strikers. They left such an impact on Nat that seventy years later, he still fights capitalist oppressors wherever he sees them. In present day New York, that turns out to be a deli that charges too much for its meat. The feisty Nat solves that problem by proclaiming himself a representative of one of the mayor’s councils, and begins marking down the groceries right before the very eyes of the distraught butcher.
Later, at his usual Central Park bench, he tries once again to enlist the help of his usual grumpy bench mate, Midge – short for midget. Midge is both repulsed and yet drawn to the string of tall tales that Nat spouts effortlessly. However, Midge is less than thrilled when Nat impersonates a lawyer and tries to negotiate with Midge’s employer for better severance terms. The antics continue when Nat assumes the identity of a rough street thug to protect Midge from a local street punk trying to exact protection money. They both are enthralled by one charcoal artist, Laurie (Martha Plimpton), who reminds them of former loves and wives.
The tangle of tales that Nat spins begin to unravel when he tells a whopper to keep his daughter, Clara (Amy Irving), from placing him in an old folks home. He breaks her heart. The stakes go up a peg when Nat attempts to bluff Laurie out of a blackmail situation with her cowboy drug dealer (Craig T. Nelson). Eventually Nat must face the agonizing question of how to reconcile his romanticized view of the world with reality.
Overall, the film is very funny. Matthau, of course, is a national treasure and makes almost any film worth seeing, merely because of his presence. The dogmatic and cautious Davis is a perfect counterpoint to the outlandish shenanigans of Matthau.
The directing is where this film suffers. Herb Gardner is a competent play writer, but the movie turns out to be merely an adequately filmed play, not really a feature movie. Dialogue is the medium of plays, action is the medium of movies. This film feels too confined, stagy and overwritten. The supporting cast, with the exception of Amy Irving and Martha Plimpton, come across as unbelievable. The offbeat background atmosphere created by the haunting sax musical score, the Ben Franklin violinist and the tuxedoed dancer with his mannequin make for creative choices that largely miss rather than hit. Furthermore, the opening sequence, though powerfully shot, seems to be from an entirely different genre than the rest of the film.
The title I’M NOT RAPPAPORT comes from a vaudeville joke that Nat plays with Midge, and later with his daughter which symbolizes his refusal to accept the identity that others foist upon him. He tells others that he is the mayor’s representative, a Cuban terrorist, a high-priced lawyer, a street thug, a philanderer, and a Mafia don, but he never reveals his true identity, till the very end. Not unlike Don Quixote, he finds reality too painful and has much more fun living in a fantasy world, jousting against windmills. As evidence of the veracity of Nat’s views, the playwright has Midge undergo a conversion from a cautious old man, to a revived fighter who now believes in himself again.
As Christians, although we may sympathize with one who is an outcast of society, and we may encourage anyone to reach out to take on whatever Goliath opposes them, we could never endorse lying to ourselves or to others. The truth is always the best foundation for one’s identity, not living in a fantasy world, even if the fantasy does provide good fodder for a film comedy. Lies, even humorous ones, have always formed the foundation for satan’s methodology, and will ultimately lead one away from the truth and from God. It is no surprise that Nat is a confirmed atheistic communist. He still believes in this philosophy and he denies the evidence of its impact that is right before his very eyes.
(HHH, Ro, C, Ro, LL, V, D, M) Humanist worldview with communist, socialist & romantic elements; 12 obscenities, 6 profanities & 3 vulgarities; action violence, threats with knife, punches, hitting with cane, bone breaks, & sprains; implied marital infidelity; marijuana use; and, lying & extortion
I’M NOT RAPPAPORT tells the story of an elderly ex-union devotee, Nat (Walter Matthau), who still holds Communist ideals and strives to fight off capitalist oppression wherever it raises its head in the vicinity of Central Park, New York. His methods are a bit unique, as he assumes various identities, like a multi-personalitied Don Quixote. Nat seeks to intimidate other by the impressiveness of his authoritative manner and the quickness of his tongue. He also helps, but enlists the assistance of Midge Carter (Ossie Davis), an elderly, ex-boiler room maintenance man, as his Sancho. Together, they take on Midge’s employer, street punks and even drug dealers. Eventually, Nat’s fast-talking ways are put to the ultimate test.
I’M NOT RAPPAPORT is a funny stage play that seems too talky and stagy for the big screen. However, Walter Matthau’s and Ossie Davis’ performances truly shine and overcome many deficiencies. Adults may find the film to be a humorous study of a fibbing Central Park Robin Hood, but it presents a very poor role model for children. Nat’s pathological lying, atheistic communist ideals and pot-smoking ways leave a lot to be desired. Refusing to accept limits expected of you by society is one thing, living a lie is another