Harry and Tonto * *
Directed by: Paul Mazursky / 1974
“What happens on the road stays on the road.” It’s an old saying that was probably borrowed from something else and has recently gone global in adaptation for the almighty slogan of Las Vegas. How about, “What happens in road movies stays in road movies.”? With the exception of a few standouts, why are all road movies the same?! It’s something that has been irking me for a while, though just yesterday I saw a well-crafted one in Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail.”
With “Harry and Tonto” I was really shooting for a gem of ‘70s filmmaking. However, what could have been a wonderfully bitter-sweet and subtle tail of an old man and his cat on the road turned into predictable groaning from the bleacher seats in my living room. I’m not completely versed in the art of the road picture, maybe for its time “Harry and Tonto” was fresh and adventurous. But, I feel like I’ve seen this many times over and most recently in the independent market. I was literally yelling to the television out-loud, “Cue eccentric left-of-center extra No. 12!”, and they would walk on set as old man Harry gave ‘em his ten cents on life and they helped him out with road traveling. And Harry experienced everything on the road, including hookers, public urination and a night in jail. By the time this personable Lone Ranger and his Tonto got to their destination I didn’t care at all, even if it wanted to be one of the most tender spots in the movie. Apologies to spoil, but I didn’t even care when Tonto bit the dust at the end of the road…and I love cats! He was also my favorite character as he played a cat perfectly! Art Carney won an Oscar for his Harry Coombes and was genuinely likable, though most of the time I saw nothing but a caricature of old man movies. Then again, this film was made in 1974, and sometimes movies like this age really fast. So, that means new movies made like this are really freezer-burnt.
David Lynch magnificently handled his true story of an old man on a lawnmower road story in “The Straight Story” with such beautiful subtle strokes and warm humanity. It’s absolutely immature of me to say, but with “Harry and Tonto” I really wanted “The Straight Story Part 1” and instead received “The Transamerica Go-Getter Part 2”. Alexander Payne is another master of the modern day road movie (I mention him all the time) with balancing the bitter and sweet with a pinch of quirks and mis-adventures, getting to a poignant destination inside and out instead of drenching a great idea with silly filler and cheap laughs. “Harry and Tonto” spent two hours getting somewhere, but in the end stayed in all too familiar places.