While Bette Gordon’s Handsome Harry unfolds as a story of a man deeply embroiled in an array of internal conflicts, it’s not wise for the same to hold true for the movie as well. Elevating the grudge-riddled material is a distinguished ensemble cast of primarily male actors, as they work out their assortment of awkward and painful identity crisis, exclusively guy problems. But the story itself which encircles a barely there designated absentee main character who isn’t the actual focus at all, conceives of everyone else as pawns in a filmmaker’s game of emotional manipulation.
Jamey Sheridan is Handsome Harry Sweeney, a friendly but very private divorced loner and Viet Nam era navy vet who runs an electrician business in a small town in Upstate NY. Not quite of retirement age, Harry is vaguely dissatisfied with what has become a daily dull routine, and is currently torn between selling his business and diving into the unknown, or clinging to the security of familiarity. And though ambivalent about his solitary existence, the still physically appealing man abruptly and inexplicably wards off the flirtations of Muriel (Karen Young), the attractive waitress in town who serves him breakfast every morning.
When an old navy buddy Tom Kelly (Steve Buscemi) whom he hasn’t spoken to since then, telephones Harry to come to his death bed where he is succumbing to cancer, he leaves town to see Kelly, even though his long estranged adult son has just arrived for a surprise visit. It seems a group of sailors in that unit back then, were complicit in nearly beating a comrade Dave Kagan (Campbell Scott) to death, who was suspected of homosexuality. And Kelly is desperately seeking absolution and closure from the unforgiving victim with Harry as messenger, so he won’t potentially end up in hell in the afterlife.
And when Kelly passes away shortly after his arrival, Harry on an impulsive whim takes off around the country in search of each man who participated in the assault, in a bid for closure himself of a long buried guilty memory. In the ensuing series of bizarre when not tragic encounters, Kelly in quick succession chows down with a macho wife abuser (John Savage) who boasts over dinner about his Viagra drenched vasectomy ‘plumbing,’ then runs off with his horny wife who nearly rapes the visitor; barges into the college classroom of a sailor turned professor (Aidan Quinn) for a public showdown but gets punched in the jaw instead; and then plays a round with a former navy mate turned fundamentalist born again golfer, before yet another unscheduled, shame-ridden encounter with the victim himself back home.
A manipulative memory lane road movie more focused on enforced penitence for the characters and viewers alike than plot points, Handsome Harry, despite superb performances, feels like an unconvincing, self-conscious narrative agenda that was essentially created to scold just about everyone on and off screen for bad behavior. Along with a nearly anthropological scornful indictment of heterosexual male species culture as pathological when not simply peculiar. Which may leave perplexed audiences to feel less uplifted, than guilty as charged.
2 1/2 stars