Monday, April 19, 2021

Five Easy Pieces: When Good Performances Aren't Enough

Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea.
The years have not been kind to Five Easy Pieces (1970), which earned four major Oscar nominations and was hailed by Roger Ebert as a "masterpiece of heartbreaking intensity." In retrospect, it's a meandering film that boasts two stellar performances and an iconic scene. That's not enough, though, to justify the bloated running time and the "so what" of it all.

Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a disgruntled young man from an affluent family of classical musicians, who works in the California oil fields. Bobby lives with Rayette (Karen Black), a pretty but none-too-bright diner waitress who aspires to sing country music. He cheats on Rayette, berates her in front of friends, and is too embarrassed to introduce her to his family. He also gets her pregnant.

Susan Anspach as Catherine.
When visiting his sister Partita, Bobby learns that his father has suffered two strokes. Partita (Lois Smith) encourages Bobby to resolve his differences with his estranged father before it's too late. Bobby's reunion with his family bores him until he meets Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is studying music with his brother Carl. As Bobby pursues the reluctant Catherine, Rayette waits for him at a motel a few miles from the Dupea house.

As a character study, one can forgive the wandering plot of Five Easy Pieces. However, director Bob Rafelson allows his film to lose focus by indulging in extraneous scenes. There are lingering shots of Bobby working in the oil fields. A hitchhiker prattles endlessly about how the world is filled with filth. Bobby gets irate about a highway traffic jam (one of Ebert's favorite scenes).

Karen Black as Rayette.
The film perks up whenever there's a scene with Karen Black as Rayette. The actress keeps the character from being nothing more than Bobby's victim. Yes, Rayette can be irritating, but she sincerely loves Bobby, forgives him for everything, and finds joy in her simple life. In one of the best scenes, Rayette interrupts a ridiculous pseudo-intellectual discussion by asking: "Is there a TV in the house?"

Jack Nicholson is wonderfully convincing as the disillusioned Bobby--who isn't quite sure what he's disillusioned about other than his life in general. One doesn't have to like the character to admire Nicholson's performance or appreciate the tiny details that make Bobby seem real. There's the justifiably famous scene of Bobby trying to reason with a diner waitress who refuses to make any substitutions on his breakfast. However, Nicholson's best scene is saved for what functions as the film's climax--a "conversation" with Bobby's father that's essentially a monologue of self-reflection.

The film's screenplay, Rafelson, Nicholson, and Black all earned Oscar nominations in 1970. If Nicholson first garnered serious critical acclaim in Easy Rider (1969), then Five Easy Pieces was the movie that made him a star. He would make three of his best films over the next five years--The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--receiving three more Oscar nominations and winning Best Actor for Cuckoo's Nest.

All of those films are better than Five Easy Pieces, a promising character study that gets lost in its own pompousness.


  1. Up until this movie, I had never seen a character go as apes*** as Nicholson/Dupea did in his car. To me, that short scene stands out more than any other. I thought tapping into that anger took some real talent, until years later when Nicholson had his real life fender-bender/2-iron incident, then realized he wasn't acting.

    Also, Susan Anspach was captivating back then, as she was later in "Blume In Love."

  2. I saw this when it was released and a couple of times since, and quite enjoyed it, both the writing and the performances. As for the "bloated running time", IMDB clocks it at 98 minutes, probably a bit under the average running time.

    1. A movie doesn't need a long running time to be bloated. I felt there were too many extraneous scenes.

  3. Uh oh. A "so what" feeling about a film ain't a good sign... Thanks for the heads up. IF I ever do see this film, I won't have high expectations.