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‘Stanley & Iris’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 09, 1990

Jane Fonda, Ms. Do-Goodie Two Shoes, just can't get enough blue-collar bathos. She's happiest when she's got her little muckrake out, scraping the American landscape for causes. It seems she was separated at birth from Alan Alda. In "Stanley & Iris," Fonda plays a new widow with a dead-end job in a bakery, a pregnant teenager, an abused sister, a grieving son, a beau who can't read so much as a street sign and pals who spit in the cupcake frosting.

All this trouble is borrowed, relished and ballyhooed in "Stanley & Iris." The picture costars Robert De Niro, who took the part even though he doesn't get to fatten up or suffer half as much as Fonda. He does make a somewhat more believable illiterate, homeless fry cook than she does a working class heroine. It's never occurred to this girl child of fame and fortune that the poor don't sit around and feel sorry for themselves. Sometimes they go bowling.

"Stanley & Iris," an oh-woe-is-me-me-me romance, finds the extremely fit, fiftyish Iris morosely slopping frosting on a pastry factory assembly line. She returns from a grueling day to make dinner for her extended family -- including an alcoholic brother-in-law, jobless and frustrated, who smacks her sister around in the kitchen some. No doubt he would be a lovely person if only he could find work. Barely able to make ends meet and still pining for her sexually active late husband, Iris meets Stanley, an amiable cook at the factory cafeteria.

Stanley is a hard-working bachelor who supports his aging father. They enjoy a supportive relationship till Stanley loses his job because his boss learns he is illiterate (Iris shoots off her mouth). Then he is obliged to put his father in a home, where the old man fades rapidly. Realizing that if he had only been able to read, he might still be caring for his father, Stanley asks Iris to teach him. And to strains that recall the theme from "Rocky," they begin the arduous growth experience.

It also happens that Stanley is attracted to this spunky martyr. And who wouldn't be turned on by Iris King? Stanley, who throws in the towel temporarily, comes back to ask Iris to resume his lessons. "How -- how've you been?" he asks tentatively, a longing for her haunting his eyes. "I've had colitis," she whimpers. Now that's hot, that's chase-me-round-the-butcher-block, make-me-dry-the-dishes hot. His quest seems interminable, and when the two do end up in bed together, they might as well be ironing the sheets. It's that sizzling.

De Niro hasn't been in anything this bland since "Falling in Love" with Meryl Streep. Handsome, but less of a lady's man than homely types like Gene Hackman, De Niro doesn't seem to need women. He's intense, but not about sexual fulfillment. It doesn't help that Iris is always talking about visiting her husband's grave. He's only been dead eight months, which apparently in a Hollywood scriptwriter's mind is an extraordinarily long period to mourn one's husband of some 20 years. (And wouldn't you know, the life insurance was canceled.)

Fonda, for that matter, hasn't been a sex object since "Klute" and hasn't been any fun since "Barbarella." And while she is the fittest 53-year-old in America, we do not feel her feel the burn. Stirring neither desire nor sympathy, the actress-activist marries maudlin with pert in this tiresome exercise.

Of course, she doesn't have all that much to work with in the screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. "Stanley & Iris" reunites the husband-and-wife team with director Martin Ritt, who earlier collaborated with them on "Hud," "The Long Hot Summer," "Norma Rae" and, more recently, "Murphy's Romance." Here, in a movie less animated than a barrel of tree sloths, Ritt encourages stale performances and a pace as dull as more tree sloths.

And they went and took all the fun out of cookies. The antithesis of Keebler elves, these gal bakers let their hairnets slip, lick the marzipan rosettes, spit in the frosting and get migraine headaches from smelling the chocolate chips. This movie's main contribution to society may be weight reduction.

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