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‘Stanley & Iris’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 09, 1990

If there are good moments in "Stanley & Iris," a public service announcement drama in which Dick gets Jane if Dick can spell "Jane," they have to do with Robert De Niro filling one half of the screen and Jane Fonda filling the other.

Of course, De Niro's and Fonda's box-office appeal is sure to have a beneficial effect on the literacy issue (an estimated 27 million Americans over age 17 are unable to read), wiping away some of the social stigma attached to adult illiterates.

De Niro, as Stanley, is one such unfortunate, an odd-jobs worker who has grown up unable to read or write, after following his traveling-salesman father around the country and sleeping his way through 50 schools. He meets Fonda's Iris, a working-class mother and recent widow, who is stuck squirting gloop on cookies in a bakery and providing for her down-and-out family (including daughter Martha Plimpton and sister Swoosie Kurtz) but who still finds time to teach Stanley how to read -- over the ironing board.

She teaches him to spell "fish," "bird," and those bigger words, "friendship" and "pride."

But no one seems to have taught this "Norma Rae" reunion team (director Martin Ritt, writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.) how to spell "screenplay" or "credibility." In this choppy narrative, based superficially on "Union Street," British author Pat Barker's socially conscious, working-class novel set in Northern England, De Niro and Fonda are forever bumping and rebumping into each other, with great time lapses in between. They're constantly required to catch up with each other, there at the cobbler's, the launderette, the concert in the park or the maternity ward of a hospital.

"What are you doing here?" Fonda seems to be constantly saying, or "How've you been?"

As for credibility, it's hard to understand why a smart cookie like Iris would get stuck in a bakery. ("Don't you know this line doesn't go anywhere?" she tells Plimpton, when her daughter shows up unexpectedly for work.) It's also a complete mystery as to how Iris, dear working-class Iris, got those suntanned, muscular arms -- a Jane Fonda workout tape, perhaps?

De Niro is about the only reason to see the movie, as he chivalrously cycles Fonda home and tells her plainly, "I'm about out of small talk"; puts his father (Feodor Chaliapin Jr., the all-purpose, ethnic gramps from "Moonstruck") into a state home with touchingly crestfallen reluctance; or chases Fonda through the rain to the bus she's boarding and begs her to teach him to read.

He even gets through a pedantic paragraph (a composite, case-study speech from writers Ravetch and Frank) telling us What It's Like to Be Illiterate with his reputation intact.

But the dramatic fracturing continues unabated, with Fonda's trouble-at-home subplot and De Niro's relationship with his father essentially going nowhere, while the dull, static shots of cinematographer Donald McAlpine give you little reason to watch this on the big screen. Actually, McAlpine may be the movie's smartest contributor. He alone seems to realize that this pedantic project will soon be graduating into home-video or classroom use.

Copyright The Washington Post

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