Flesh and Bone
by Del Harvey
Some families are just bad to begin with…
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For many years this film has been remembered as the one that introduced Meg Ryan to Dennis Quaid. Recently it has resurfaced on video store shelves. Having missed it during theatrical release, I was curious. Now, having seen the film, I am curious as to why it has not fared better. Written and directed by Steve Kloves, who wrote Fabulous Baker Boys, Wonder Boys, and all three of the Harry Potter films, Flesh and Bone is a good little tale of an American family gone to Hell. Although it never rises above a “B” effort, it’s still as good as many similar efforts which have popped up in the past decade. It features the considerable talent of James Caan as Quaid’s rotten-to-the-core con man father. His cohort is a young Gwyneth Paltrow, a natural grifter in her own right with only a slightly more evolved sense of morals. There is a twist involved in the familial relationships here, but I won’t give any of this away; you have to see the film to find out for yourself.
In the opening scenes we meet a young Oklahoma farm family, circa late 1950’s or early 1960’s. It’s a late night on their small farm, and as their 8-year old son is being put to bed, father goes out on the porch to see what the family dog is barking at. He slowly realizes there”s someone sitting on his son’s swing set in the pitch dark, staring back at him. It is a young boy, perhaps the same age as his own. Mother and father assume the unspeaking boy is in need of nourishment and care, and so take him in for the night. Much later, while the parents, the son, and their new baby are asleep, the strange boy goes prowling through the house. He opens the front door and his father, Caan, enters and immediately orders his son to help him ransack the house for all the loot they can gather. But the father has awoken and stands over the strange boy with his rifle. Before any explanation can be given, Caan shoots the man down, then proceeds to slaughter the remaining family members. He tells his son you can never leave a witness.
The story leaps ahead some twenty years, and the boy has grown into a man—Arlis Sweeney (Dennis Quaid). He runs concessions in every store, bar, and gas station in a three county area. This being a particular, yet undefined, time period, as well as being the Southern Midwest, these concessions run from canned soup dispensers to condom machines and betting booths. This last is his most colorful and includes a betting, guessing game whereby you are supposed to beat the odds against brightly colored chickens who would seem to be counting geniuses. Not a very admirable occupation, but certainly better than his father”s.
It is in one of these small towns that he first notices Paltrow’s character Ginnie, shoplifting at one of his client”s stores. Soon he realizes she seems to be turning up everywhere he goes. About this same time he spots a mysterious car which seems to be following him.
At another of his stops, a rowdy bar where a bachelor party awaits the stripper-inside-the-cake, he meets down-on-her-luck Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), too frightened to go through with the job, so she gets too drunk to perform. He is volunteered by the bar owner to get Kay out of there before the drunken crowd decides to take their frustrations out on the unconscious woman. Waking up in his hotel room the next day, she finds herself surrounded by brightly painted chickens and boxes full of condoms. Fearing the worst, she launches into Quaid, but soon discovers he seems to be very genuine and sweet.
These are flawed people with very little happening in their lives, which probably explains the film”s lack of any real success, especially as both actors were highly regarded at the time and this effort undoubtedly seemed beneath them. Still, in the years since there have been hundreds of similarly lesser efforts staring a number of extremely capable actors, but their efforts did not seem to garner as much attention as Flesh and Bone did for its stars. I”m not sure how much their budding romance played into this.
Saved by a good cast who did not seem to have much to work with in the way of script or characters, Flesh and Bone is as good as many other similar films out there, and even better in some ways. If anything, it is worth watching for the cast alone.
Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of Film Monthly. He currently lives in Southern California. He is a devout Chicago Bears fan, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College for giggles.
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