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'Spring Forward': The Talking Cure

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2001


    'Spring Forward' Ned Beatty is one of the stars of "Spring Forward." (IFC Productions)
"Spring Forward," playwright-turned-filmmaker Tom Gilroy's magnificently understated character drama, discloses man's biggest secret: his ability to talk long and deep on any subject without even a mention of sports.

It's true. Just give him the right situation, a deer hunt, a walk in the woods, a few hours on the train or – in this movie – a job with Parks & Recreation, and you'll hear a torrent of confession, tenderness and sensitivity.

You'll see man uncovered and gabbing in "Spring Forward," a gently unfolding story about an ex-convict (Liev Schreiber) and a retiring municipal employee (Ned Beatty). Forced to work together over the course of a year, they learn powerful things from each other, thanks to shared times and conversation.

Less innocently, I should say: thanks to the craft of great dialogue, that elusive art of telling it like it is by saying something else. In "Spring Forward," Beatty and Schreiber (two eloquent, precise performers in such different ways) exult in this stuff – this rich subtextual game – for two refreshing, funny, touching hours.

Filmed in sequence over a year, and structured as seven chapters, Gilroy's film begins on the day that the recently paroled Paul has his first day on the job at Parks & Rec in a New England town. It ends on the day his veteran partner, Murph, retires.

Murph, an easygoing salt of the earth, likes his work. He carries no emotional baggage, not on the surface anyway. Paul, fresh out of stir for robbing a Dunkin' Donuts, is a cagey bag of angst, so desperate to adjust that he's an apologetic pain in the – well, Murph would never say that word. He doesn't like bad language. But Paul can't stop swearing. These two have a long way to go before they find common ground.

It's better for you to experience the episodes these two weather together: the obnoxious yuppie (Campbell Scott in a succinct role) who tries to make them load and take away an enormous pile of fertilizer; an emotionally troubled young man (Ian Hart) who springs at them from a hiding place; a sweet-natured, romantically lonely woman named Georgia (Peri Gilpin), who persuades Paul to adopt one of her dogs.

What counts most is what happens between Paul and Murph. This is about two men learning to trust each other, then spreading their emotional cards, one by one, on the table. But it's also about trading those cards, and learning that some of them are the same. Paul, who has studied a rash of spiritual books in prison, will realize his earnest spiritual quest has great affinity with Murph's easier outlook: Take it easy, learn to let go of stuff, go with the flow. And Murph will come down from that good-guy pedestal a little.

Too often, movies – especially American ones – hang entirely on what men or women do to each other. Those options are limited: shoot, kill, make love, deceive, ambush – that sort of thing. But this movie asks you to sit back and listen. It takes you places with the power of suggestion and the subtleties of a performer's expression, rather than special effects. You realize this is a story about the life beyond this movie, about the great changes in life we never give ourselves time to consider. And for a moviegoing experience, that's a lot of bang for your buck.

"Spring Forward" (110 minutes) is rated R for strong language.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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