There is a problem presented in the first three-quarters of "Coming Home," and a solution in the last quarter. But they don't match.
The problem is how to survive after having been crippled by the war in Vietnam, physically or emotionally, or maybe it's how to rehabilitate yourself after having gotten injured, symbolically or otherwise, by trying to squeeze into a social role that doesn't fit. Got that?
There is a war hero (it says "War Hero" on his windbreaker) who has lost the use of his legs, an officer's wife who has been straightening and teasing her hair, and an officer who first tried to be a war hero and then shot himself in the foot and went home. There situations are excellently presented and sympathetically played. Jon Voight is the disabled hero, stumbling over such blocks as porch steps and sexual embarrassment; he does a sensitive job of showing what it is to rescale one's life to fit into a wheelchair. Jane Fonda is the wife who meets him while going in the opposite direction, from a confined existence to a comparatively free one, bringing a surprising amount of subtlety to this now-well-documented journey. Bruce Dern's militaristic officer and chauvinistic husband is also presented with amazing subtlety, steering close to so many cliches without hitting them.
But into this is thrown all kinds of junky California culture.
There are early warnings. Popular songs are used in the background to announce each scene: "Just Like a Woman," "Save Me," "Manic Depression," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Born to Be Wild," and so on. The sexual symbolism is even more crudely done: the husband who can't get the toaster to pop up, the wife who pauses at the fireplace before committing her first adultery, and asks, "What am I lighting a fire for?"
But that's nothing compared to the idiocy of the way the characters' valid problems are resolved.
What happens when two men both love and desperately need the same woman? Why, the three of them have a nice talk in which they acknowledge their feelings, and that makes it all right. It is a travesty on the Voight character to turn him into a saint-therapist for this scene. Hooray for the husband who keeps interrupting him by shouting "Bull - ," until he, too, even more out of character, succumbs to the encountergroup spirit and volunteers his inadequacies.
The husband's character, as one who can neither enlarge nor shrink his self-image to fit the new reality, is potentially fascinating. That he commits suicide is dramatically feasible. But that he, a military man with an arsenal in his garage and a fear of exposing his weaknesses, should do it by walking naked into the ocean is unforgivable.Is he suddenly saying, "Well, if I cnt't be John Wayne, I can at least be James Mason in 'A Star Is Born'"?
It is usually also unforgivable to give away the endings of films, but if you leave before seeing this one's, you will have seen a better movie.