Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Posted: July 2, 2014 in Movie Review
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Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Director: Bob Rafelson

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach

You know those people in you life who have no inner monologue? You’re trying to concentrate on driving but you can’t hear yourself think, and it’s all because of that annoying talky sound coming from the backseat. It’s not that you’re incapable of handling a little road trip chatter. It has to do with the fact that you’ve heard the same boring story, repeated with only the slightest of variations, at least ten times already. “Five Easy Pieces” contains a moment that presents just such a scenario, but its main character is so emotionally stunted that he doesn’t offer a single word of objection. He just keeps on driving.

Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), a descendant in a long line of musicians, was once destined for greatness as a classical pianist but he has long since abandoned that life for a crappy job drilling for oil in California. Lately, he has involved himself in what looks to be a loveless relationship with a waitress named Rayette (Karen Black). Consumed with dreams of being a country singer, Rayette is a big fan of Tammy Wynette and plays her records on high volume late at night. She’s awfully clingy, threatening to kill herself if Bobby ever leaves her. That’s quite a trap, but she’s right about one thing: Even though she’s the one sulking and hiding under her bed sheets, it’s Bobby who is the pathetic one.

When Bobby gets word from his sister that their father has suffered not one but two strokes, he makes the decision to drive up to Washington state to try and make up for lost time. What follows is the part of the movie I like best. Bobby and Rayette pick up two hitchhikers, one of which cannot stop herself from continuously talking about how “filthy” everything is. Not once does Bobby ever yell at her to shut up (nor does Rayette, for that matter), but the look on his face tells us he’s yelling on the inside. Any raw anger he needs to get out is released in what is considered the film’s most famous scene. Stopping for food, Bobby gets into a heated discussion with the waitress over the inflexibility of the diner’s menu. This clues us in a little bit more on the content of Bobby Dupea’s character. For anyone who’s had time to familiarize themselves with Jack Nicholson, they will recognize this outburst as being characteristic of most of his roles. In this moment, Bobby has this compelling need to be right. I think he is, and so does his hitchhiker, but that’s not the point. You should never embarrass yourself in public when it’s so easily avoidable.

Contrary to what one might believe, the title “Five Easy Pieces” refers not to the women with whom Bobby has sexual relations, but to the classical piano pieces which are played during the course of the film. Besides, the number of women who make it with Bobby is three, not five. There’s Rayette, of course, but as Bobby becomes increasingly incapable of feeling anything in this relationship, he looks elsewhere. One of these other women is played by a pre-“All in the Family” Sally Struthers. She’s just a one night stand, someone he uses and then throws away just as quickly. The other woman is his brother’s fiancée, Catherine (Susan Anspach). Despite being two very different people, there is an instant attraction that turns physical. But Catherine is way too smart for a man like Robert, whom she can tell is both directionless and loveless. These are not exactly the best qualities a man can have if he actually wants a woman to stick around, which is what Robert seems to desire this time.

Apart from a genuinely terrific performance from Jack Nicholson, a good supporting cast and three standout scenes, “Five Easy Pieces” as a whole is disappointingly ordinary. Like its main character, the movie meanders from moment to moment without there being much meaning behind any of it. I realize that this was likely the whole point, that the plot was meant to reflect the man, and I respect that.  I also know that my opinion puts me in a select minority, as “Five Easy Pieces” comes highly praised and beloved by critics and Average Joe Citizen alike. The Tammy Wynette-heavy soundtrack certainly doesn’t help. It is said that there is a certain point in our youth where we become who we are going to be for the rest of our lives. That tends to discourage the idea that people can change, which is a sad thought indeed. For some people, though, it holds true. In Bobby’s case, it probably happened around the time he first left home. Here is a man who cannot enjoy life because he’s too busy running away from it. He’s a child who never grew up. Therein lies the problem: Examining the journey of a man who refuses to participate in this thing called ‘life’ can be a good character study, but it would be a stretch for me to refer to the experience as either entertaining or fun.

  1. CMrok93 says:

    At first, this movie didn’t really do much for me. I got that it was a character-study and all, but Nicholson’s character really bothered me. However, as time went on and I started to see what this story was really all about, I found myself swimming in a pool of my own tears. And now, I fully understand why so many see it as a “classic.” Good review.

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