Jack Nicholson’s first lead role post-Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces is the film that largely gave him the star power to carry a film by himself. Directed by Bob Rafelson, it has Nicholson starring as Bobby Dupea, a former concert pianist turned low-brow oil rig worker; a man who learned early on to take the easy road in life, and damn all those who would try and have him change his ways. It’s one hell of a character, and the film is a hell of a character piece, but it still begs the question; can a film just have a strong central character, and pretty much nothing else, and call itself a film?
I knew going into this one that Jack Nicholson starred, and that there was a highly memorable scene in which he fights with a waitress over how to get a side order of toast. What I didn’t know was that the film really wasn’t a film; it’s a character study, one that often masquerades as a road movie. It follows Nicholson’s character Dupea as he takes a trip with his pregnant girlfriend up to the family haunt to see his sick father, and the wisecracks and shenanigans that happen along the way that seem to serve no purpose other than to get under his skin, and it couldn’t be more amusing to watch. The name of the game here is schadenfreude, which for those of you not too inclined to check a dictionary, is defined as garnering enjoyment at the suffering of others, and it’s what this film seems to be all about. All throughout, things happen and people arise that Bobby Dupea would just rather not deal with, and all the while, he is forced to deal with them. It provides a lot of entertainment value, but not a whole lot of solid storytelling or weighty material. Oh, and Karen Black was completely believable as the bimbo girlfriend, so kudos for her.
I wasn’t too sure what Five Easy Pieces wanted to be. It was almost like someone saw Easy Rider, loved Nicholson in it, and quickly scrounged up some material together for him to star in. There was little cohesiveness, no glue that held everything together, other than Dupea himself, and so once again, I reiterate my earlier question: can a film, with nothing but a single character, really call itself a full and complete film? In the case of Five Easy Pieces, the answer would seem to be yes; it’s entertaining, it’s easily feature-length, and it technically has a story to tell. I just wasn’t convinced the story had any real merit behind it, other than as a vehicle for the characters to do their stuff. Still, plenty of other “character study” movies have gotten away with it in the past, so maybe I’m being a little too stern, but I never got the feeling that it was just a bunch of characters making as if they were a full-fledged film, like I did with Five Easy Pieces. Doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, though, and thanks to Nicholson I think you’ll like it too. Just don’t expect a fully balanced meal from this when all you get is a single finely-cooked slab of meat.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10