Five Easy Pieces
Five Easy Pieces seems like one of those movies that just sort of gets tucked away in history. The film bowed relatively early in Jack Nicholson’s career, and although his lead role as the silver-spoon-to-blue-collar Robert Dupea earned him an Oscar nom, it frequently gets nudged out of the limelight in favor of his more famous works in Chinatown, Terms of Endearment, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
To boot, Director Bob Rafelson isn't exactly a household name. Besides Five Easy Pieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice is his other most well-known film, but these two movies are highlights in a somewhat sparse filmmaking career.
Given these, Five Easy Pieces seems almost unremarkable, as if its only purpose was to be another notch in the belt of Nicholson's illustrious career. It's complimentary to much of how it’s storis so straightforward; all that Robert seeks to do is visit his aging and incapacitated father, thus pulling him away from the oil farm and setting him on a road trip to the refined and sophisticated home of his father and siblings - all of whom still clutch the silver spoon they were born with.
But all of that regularity gives the movie its appeal; with Robert, there's no spectacle, glitz, or glam, sparkling silverware on the dining room table notwithstanding. He may look good in either a flannel or a turtleneck, but he doesn't seem entirely comfortable in either. Robert is just a real man who struggles with his ditzy gal Rayette (Karen Black), his high-brow family, and most intriguingly, himself. And Nicholson plays the role perfectly.
Perhaps no other Nicholson performance showcases his articulation of inner conflicts so well, or no other that is so beautifully physical that even his temper tantrums seem like choreographed dances. Such mesmerizing movement from Nicholson here would make Paul Newman jealous. Physical and cerebral at once, this is the quintessential Nicholson.
Nicholson's performance makes Robert's character that much more accessible, making it the vehicle by which Five Easy Pieces’ transitions from mere regular ol’ story to an exceptional one, compelling and emotionally deep. The punctuated writing and plot structure packs massive punch. Through these, we can gleam very well why Robert, with his particular brain, would reject his affluent background (and even his talents as a concert pianist!) in favor of a lifestyle where dirt can get under his fingernails. It's even given him plenty of wit; a memorable scenes features him out-witting a stubborn waitress into ordering toast with his breakfast.
Complimenting Nicholson is a strong supporting cast, capped by Black and her penchant for being bubbly in opposition to Robert's sternness. Often a source of comic relief, she also manages to be a certain folly for Robert; he can’t live with her, but he can’t live without her. Some of the movie’s funniest moments come from quick, judging glances from Robert’s siblings when she makes air-headed comments at the dinner table. The way that all actors play off of each other here is remarkably entertaining to watch.
But underscoring it all is Robert getting back in touch with his father (Ralph Waite), who can no longer speak. The scenario makes for touching sequences between father and children; in particular, father and son. With these scenes' sincerity coupled with movie's good load of humor, Five Easy Pieces easily becomes a hearty slice of life.
At 90 minutes, there might not be room to squeeze in fleshed-out subplots or dynamic supporting characters. But with Five Easy Pieces, less is more, and each character still contributes a great deal to such a short story. In that sense, the movie could almost be a short film in its scope. It's the perfect movie to pick up and watch on a whim, and still get a highly enjoyable, worthwhile ride. It may not be the flashiest old movie out there, but it is definitely one to be fondly remembered.