It's easy to dismiss Handsome Harry by its third scene: This is a movie that begins with one of those deathbed requests from characters who have only hours to live but can still deliver their clichéd lines with vigour. In the end, in the very end, however, dismissal turns out to be premature: Handsome Harry is a small film with more to say than its creaky exposition and formulaic plot would suggest. Frustration is perhaps the more appropriate critical response.
"Handsome" Harry Sweeney (Jamey Sheridan, that model of aging virility) is a former sailor, now an electrician who lives his life as a seemingly contented and affable loner, joshing with his buddies and chatting up the waitress but never letting anyone inside. When old navy pal Thomas Kelley calls from his deathbed, Sweeney grimaces at the memories the man evokes: Kelley wants Sweeney to orchestrate some forgiveness from another friend they viciously beat in a drunken episode of what is soon revealed to be gay-bashing. Kelley is played by Steve Buscemi, an actor who always looks like he's suffering from terminal liver failure, but he still can't raise any plausibility from this scenario.
Kelley swiftly dies, leaving Sweeney to undertake an Eastern Seaboard road trip to the other remaining bashers to see what they remember of the event before inevitably winding up at the door of the victim. Each one of the perpetrators has taken a different approach to his guilt, but director Bette Gordon never manages to instill any suspense in this emotional checklist.
There's the brash and unrepentant homophobe Rheems (John Savage), who would rather speak of his own sexual dysfunction than of his gay son, but revels in his life as a wealthy real-estate developer. In another of the film's groaners, his frustrated wife (Mariann Mayberry) leaves him in Sweeney's presence, taking off her wedding ring and plunking it down on the dining-room table.
Sweeney winds up in a hotel room with the fleeing wife in a scene that exposes the film's warring instincts. On the one hand, there is the pair's improbable recognition that they were both participants at a music contest together a few years back; on the other, there is the achingly sad little duet that follows before they move to the bed. Why bother with the unconvincing pretext for the emotional honesty?
Next, Harry visits the university professor Porter (Aidan Quinn), whom he inexplicably chooses to confront in a classroom full of gaping undergraduates. The liberal Porter is apparently as ashamed of his failure to denounce the Vietnam War as of his part in the beating. (These men were in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era but seem mainly to have served in European fleshpots.)
Lastly, there's the born-again Gebhardt (Titus Welliver), who looks to Jesus for forgiveness - and the fortitude to deal with a paralyzed wife.
Welliver's is one of the richer performances in the supporting cast: Most of these figures are two-dimensional and the actors render them as little more than caricature. Sheridan's performance, on the other hand, is a model of silently suffering masculinity, his pain growing more palpable as the true cause of the bashing is gradually revealed.
As the victim, Campbell Scott has the enviable role of the late-appearing character whom everyone else has spent the entire film discussing, and he makes the most of it with his complex and ambivalent brand of forgiveness. In these final moments of button-downed emotion, you say to yourself, hey, there's the beginning of a good film here.
- Written by Nicholas T. Proferes
- Directed by Bette Gordon
- Starring Jamey Sheridan
- Classification: NA