Owen Gleiberman
May 17, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Pallbearer

Current Status
In Season
98 minutes
Barbara Hershey, Gwyneth Paltrow, David Schwimmer, Michael Vartan
Comedy, Romance
We gave it a B

Does any of this sound the least bit…familiar? Tom Thompson (David Schwimmer) is a slack-jawed college graduate stuck in a limbo of his own devising. An aspiring architect, he knows he’s supposed to be thinking about the future, but he can’t muster the will to segue into adulthood. He’s stalled in a hangover of postadolescent confusion. Then he runs into Julie (Gwyneth Paltrow), the young woman he’s had a crush on since high school; suddenly, the world comes into focus. He knows what he wants now — he wants her — and he’ll do anything to get her attention, even if it means making a spectacle of himself at a civil ceremony (no, not a wedding, a funeral). Unfortunately, there’s another woman in the picture, a temptress (Barbara Hershey) old enough to be his mother. Desperate and devouring, she’s more than available — she’s unavoidable — and Tom starts having an affair with her. Overnight, the moonstruck romantic turns out to be a hormonal hypocrite.

It doesn’t take long to see that the folks who made The Pallbearer, screenwriter Jason Katims and his cowriter and director, Matt Reeves, have cribbed rather shamelessly from The Graduate. What’s more, they’ve done it without devising any equivalent to the glib yet satisfying sociocultural whimsy (”Plastics”) that gave that movie its zeitgeist cachet. The Pallbearer is The Graduate Lite, a romantic-mix-up comedy that taps all too modestly into the awkward emotional tribulations of being 25 years old. The surprise is that it’s also a sweetly funny and affecting movie. David Schwimmer, in his first starring vehicle, doesn’t stray too far from his pleading-eyed, puppy-schlemiel persona on Friends (though is it a coincidence that his voice now has echoes of Dustin Hoffman’s strangulated high tones?). Schwimmer may or may not be a movie star, but by the end his hangdog earnestness has acquired a touch of dignity.

Oddly, the one thing in The Pallbearer that doesn’t work is its ersatz-outrageous premise. Tom receives a phone call from Barbara Hershey’s Ruth, whose son has killed himself. She thinks that Tom was his best friend, and Tom, who doesn’t even remember the fellow, is so bullied by her grief that he agrees to be a pallbearer at the funeral. I didn’t believe a minute of this; more to the point, it’s not funny (even the payoff, Tom’s delivery of a fumbling eulogy, fizzles badly). Fortunately, it’s only the first third of the film. What begins as canned black comedy soon ripens into a bittersweet valentine.

On Friends, the show about young urbanites who look like the in crowd but act like the out crowd (they’re an Aaron Spelling wet dream gone geek), Schwimmer enjoys a crucial distinction: He’s the one cast member who actually seems to have thought of the lines that come out of his mouth. There’s a hint of narcissistic coyness to his wise-guy-loser shtick, and that’s what The Pallbearer plays up: It uses him as a fellow who wears his own insecurity as a mask.

Tom may be guileless, but when he wants something he’s like a dog who won’t stop chewing the furniture. Out on a double date with Julie, he doesn’t know any of the old jazz standards his friends are talking about, but he tries singing along anyway; it’s a hilarious moment — desperation turned to naked, scrambling will. At the same time, when Schwimmer stares at Gwyneth Paltrow (Seven), who has the most wholesome romantic presence of any of the new young actresses, he’s disarmingly tender, especially when they bump heads during a fumbled kiss and he confesses, ”I should have told you I was goin’ in.” In The Pallbearer, David Schwimmer doesn’t make masculine longing look pathetic, like the self-mythologizing idiots in Beautiful Girls. He turns his schlumpiness into an ironic form of chivalry.

Julie likes Tom as much as he likes her, but there’s a problem: She plans to leave town. And so he allows himself to drift into the arms of Ruth, his bleached-blond Mrs. Robinson. Hershey takes this schematic role and soups it up into steamy, funny hysteria. Inevitably, Tom’s worlds collide, and though it’s easy to see what’s coming — nothing that happens in The Pallbearer is very surprising — the climactic confrontation merges comedy, pain, and madcap embarrassment with satisfying finesse. Tom learns his lesson, too: He drops the insecurity — the mask. By the end of The Pallbearer, we’re finally seeing David Schwimmer without his gawky-boy mannerisms, and, for the first time, he looks like a real actor. B

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