There are few things more deadly in cinema than theater types taking stage material and simply transposing it to the big screen. But occasionally such adaptations are handled so deftly that they work. To stretch a point, one could mention My Dinner with Andre as a successful instance; and, I'm happy to say, playwright Tom Gilroy's debut feature, Spring Forward, is another.
I say to stretch a point because although nothing within the nature of the material suggests it, both pieces were in fact written directly for the screen. Spring Forward is essentially a two-character comedy-drama--in each scene but one, a different third character appears, never to return--set against a series of exterior backdrops that easily could have been conveyed by a few simple props on a nearly bare stage. Yet, by the end, the performances and the writing have remained so engaging that we don't mind the theoretical "staginess" of the film.
The story takes place over the course of roughly a year, giving us glimpses into the relationship between two men working as groundskeepers for the municipal parks and recreation department in a small Connecticut town. Murph (Ned Beatty) is an old-timer, a man getting close to retirement. In the opening scene, he meets his new partner, Paul (Liev Schreiber), a parolee who has been given the job after serving 18 months for a thoroughly inept robbery committed in a moment of frustration.
In fact, Paul is quite a hothead, and at times we worry that his inability to control his feelings is going to lead to either violence or at least some confrontation with Murph that no apologizing will be able to heal. But Gilroy isn't going for that sort of drama here. Murph and Paul are both decent human beings, neither more saintly nor more evil than most of us (though, of the two, Paul is clearly the more flawed).
The film is structured as seven episodes, each elapsing in real time, spread out through the course of a year, with scenic one-minute interludes establishing the time setting for each scene. The first scene cleverly limns the characters' differences by showing their reactions to a yuppie jerk played by the always primo Campbell Scott (Big Night, The Impostors): The overemotional Paul insults the guy and comes close to decking him, while older and wiser Murph argues, cajoles, and eventually ignores him.
Subsequent scenes teach us about the pair largely through their interactions with others: a homeless man (Ian Hart) they find living beneath one of the parks' gazebos; a single woman (Peri Gilpin, from Frasier) with a clear romantic interest in Paul; a little kid playing in the park (Justin Laboy); an old friend of Murph's (Bill Raymond) who has come to realize what a bad friend he's been; and a young mother (Catherine Kellner) in the midst of a suicide attempt.
It's not just that, at each confrontation, we learn more about the two men. Paul and Murph learn more about each other and about themselves as the film progresses. (And Paul, being younger and having more to learn, also goes through greater changes along the way.)
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Clearly, in this sort of story, which is almost entirely dependent on two actors, a misstep by either could sink the whole affair. But both men are at the top of their games. Because of his physical appearance, Schreiber has been most frequently cast as villains or obnoxious creeps. He brings that experience to his portrayal of Paul, but never allows us to write off the character entirely.
Beatty is a terrific actor, but he has been in enough films over the past three decades to have occasionally done bad work in some irredeemable pieces of tripe. (Purple People Eater leaps to mind.) But, with decent material, he's always at least good; and with first-rate material, as is the case here, he can be wonderful.
The "guest" actors all do fine work in their brief appearances, but Raymond--one of those familiar character actors whose name you don't know but whose face you immediately recognize--gets top honors.
Gilroy has brilliantly played to his strengths in Spring Forward. With a story that has no room for big, obviously "cinematic" effects, he concentrates on simple staging, unobtrusive (though often beautifully evocative) visuals, and sheer performance. It's a decision that pays off.