“Seize the day,” the proverbs say,
But what if, trying to obey,
You find your hope
A slippery slope
That lets potential slip away.
Some days are high, while others die
In grief no matter how you try.
Your only hope
Those days, to cope,
Is that the next may dry your eye.
(If you don’t like this woeful rhyme,
You’ll find this film a waste of time.)
MPAA Rating: Unrated (should be PG-13)
I’d almost forgotten about my Bottom-Dwellers, six films I personally loathe and wouldn’t mind forgetting entirely. Though I still have two left to excoriate eventually, it took the arrival of a seventh to get me to return to a truly negative review. This latest Bottom-Dweller worth despising is 1986’s Seize the Day, an early dramatic turn for Robin Williams before he made that line famous in Dead Poets Society. It was the presence of Williams that got me curious to see it, but even if he does well with the material, said material is not nearly worth his talent.
On the DVD case, Seize the Day is hailed as the only adaptation of respected author Saul Bellow’s works, and it doesn’t induce me to seek out the novel at all. Williams plays Tommy Wilhelm, a struggling salesman whose years of hard work for the same company resulted in his bitter unemployment. Having left his wife, he must pay alimony, even though she refuses to grant him a divorce, for which his girlfriend (Glenne Headly) is growing impatient. Tommy travels to the city, only to find a dearth of well-paying jobs, a reminder of how disdainful and unloving his father is (Joseph Wiseman), and a slight chance at pay dirt with the stock market advice of a poker buddy called Dr. Tamkin (Jerry Stiller). Things start out bad and then get worse and worse and worse, and then it ends.
I’m not necessarily opposed to depressing movies, but there’s usually some redeeming factor. Grave of the Fireflies makes me cry every time, but there are moments of light and sweetness sprinkled throughout. The Italian classic Bicycle Thieves is another example of a “worse and worse and then it ends” kind of movie, but at least there’s a potent social commentary at its heart. Seize the Day has nothing to recommend it, except Williams’ fine acting that makes you genuinely pity this poor man as his life is stamped into the dust of an uncaring world.
I suppose you could read a warning into it, like “Never fall for a con artist who eats like a pig,” but any lesson to be had pales next to just how pathetic Tommy becomes. Perhaps the point was for him to face up to his mistakes in life (not taking his father’s career advice, leaving his vindictive wife), but so much cold callousness piles on him that all he and the audience want is a tiny bit of relief that never comes. The author described Seize the Day almost as a dark comedy, but certainly nothing seems funny at the time. The closest thing to gallows humor is the final scene (which I’ll spoil since no one should waste their time on this movie), in which Tommy finds a funeral and uses the opportune setting to break down sobbing at his shattered hopes. And then it ends. Bad days happen; I had one just yesterday (which might explain why I’m going all medieval on this movie), but there are few things less appealing than watching someone else’s day and/or life ruined.
I’ve never read Saul Bellow’s novels, but if Seize the Day is any indication, it’s no wonder why others haven’t been adapted to film. As an old HBO movie, the quality of the filmmaking is also shabby, with choppy editing and uninspired direction. But beyond such practical complaints, Seize the Day is an oppressively bleak and dismal contrast to the American dream, a story whose only goal seems to be driving its main character to suicide, and considering what became of its star, this film’s purpose of hopelessness is in retroactive bad taste. Williams’ first scene in the film is of him giving another driver the finger, a sentiment also deserved by the film itself.
Best line: (a man in an elevator) “The truth is one parent can support ten children, but ten children can’t support one parent.”
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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