Five Easy Pieces (1970) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, sexuality, and language
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Lois Smith, William Challee, Billy Green Bush, Sally Struthers, Fannie Flagg, Marlena MacGuire, Toni Basil
Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Carole Eastman, Bob Rafelson
Review published October 27, 2006
Bobby Dupea (Nicholson, Goin' South) is a man who has spent most of his life running away from something. He ran away from his home life, his career as a pianist, his old girlfriends, whatever odd jobs he took, and he even wants to get away from his current living conditions. When he runs away, he never looks back. However, situations force him to come to terms with some of the loose ends he's left behind when his father becomes ill, with Bobby having to come to terms with his siblings, home life, and all of the things that drove him away to begin with.
Five Easy Pieces is a fascinating study of a man with a drifter mentality, never content to be tied down or stuck in one spot for very long. Even as a classically-trained pianist, he would choose the easy way out, not wanting to spend his life performing at a level the precision and dedication require. Just as he did in music, so does Bobby do in life, taking the easy way out when things become too difficult to deal with. It's a never-ending search for happiness, but happiness never seems to come, as he is unable to deal with the fact that, no matter where you go or who you're with, life will always have downs as well as ups.
This character piece by Bob Rafelson (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Brubaker) runs along so well as a straight-forward drama, it's sometimes difficult to see the complexities underneath. Most of it comes through Nicholson's subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle performance, as we see the essence of a malcontent underneath almost every look and mannerism. Despite having a woman who loves him and a decent-paying job, he looks for whatever opportunity presents itself to escape, whether it is with another woman or in something to get him away from the humdrum of his daily existence. For much of the movie, he appears to be a self-centered jackass, but we eventually do fit some of the pieces of the puzzle together to form some semblance as to why he is what he is.
Of course, the one scene that most people remember from the film is the famous diner conversation between Bobby and a burnt-out waitress where he tries to place an order outside the menu, which goes against the policy of the restaurant. He tells her to hold the chicken "between her knees". While this is certainly a witty and engaging conversation within this mostly somber film, what is sometimes lost by this scene is that it captures the essence of the film as a whole. Even when ordering a simple breakfast, Bobby doesn't want to conform to expectations or rules, doing his own thing, even if it means having to go out of his way to be creative. The anger that seethes underneath is caused by having to be pinned down into being something he doesn't want to be. Once you understand that aspect about Bobby, you understand Bobby's life -- a continuous series of circumstances of Bobby avoiding getting tied down to anything.
Five Easy Pieces would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and acting nods to Nicholson and co-star Karen Black (Capricorn One, Nashville). It wouldn't win any, but it has gone on to become a seminal film of the 1970s, showcasing a time when the country as a whole, like Bobby, was restless and struggled with conformity and authority issues. Unfortunately, outside of the one chicken salad scene, the film itself has largely been forgotten or misunderstood, although it still has a certain resonance for those who feel catharsis for this lonely drifter that loves nothing and no one, but still expects to be loved in return.
©2006 Vince Leo