'Pallbearer' shows ambiguity

by Lee Istrail | 5/27/96 5:00am

Ever been greeted by someone who knows you, but you can't remember them at all? In a new film currently showing, a man finds himself cast into a similar but much more difficult predicament.

In "The Pallbearer," television star David Schwimmer from the hit show "Friends" stars as Tom Thompson, a fairly average 25-year old who receives a desperate call from a woman he doesn't recognize.

Mrs. Abernathy (Barbara Hershey) tearfully tells him that her son, Bill, is dead and that she wants Thompson to be a pallbearer at Bill's funeral.

Supposedly the deceased man was a classmate of Thompson's in high school. But Thompson, perplexed, cannot remember ever having known anybody named Bill Abernathy.

And so unfolds the story of a man in search of his identity, both plagued and blessed by old high-school memories. The story is the main strength of this movie, as the plot becomes mired in uncertainty and problems throughout.

The flow of this movie is also interesting. The Nugget Theater bills the film as a "screwball comedy," but this is not at all a laugh-a-minute flick.

Thompson is trying to find his way through life, constantly unsure and uncomfortable of his surroundings. The humor that arises is always deadpan, often depressing but ultimately very realistic.

Thompson agrees to be a pallbearer at the funeral for the sake of not further upsetting Mrs. Abernathy. But through this, he becomes further involved in consoling the mourning mother.

Meanwhile, he runs into Julie (Gwyneth Paltrow), the beauty he had a crush on in high school. She at first mistakes him for another high school friend, then slowly realizes his true identity, embarassed by her mistake.

Thompson is severely shaken at the idea of having been forgotten. The experience reminds him of Abernathy, whom neither he nor his friends can remember.

Despite this initial shock, Thompson and Julie start spending time together, reminiscing about old times. She remembers him simply as "a really nice guy," emphasizing his common, friendly appeal.

As he rekindles his memories of Julie, Thompson also becomes closer to Mrs. Abernathy, although in a very superficial way. Completely skipping the intermediate stages, Thompson and Mrs. Abernathy cut straight to the sex.

This relationship between Thompson and Mrs. Abernathy is reminiscent of the film "The Graduate," in which Mrs. Robinson seduces her daughter's boyfriend.

While talking to a friend, Thompson finally unravels the mystery, discovering why he was asked to be the pallbearer in the first place.

He then explains the whole thing to Mrs. Abernathy, saying he pretended to know her son because "I was afraid of being forgotten, of realizing that I've made such little impact on people's lives."

For the rest of the film, Thompson tries to resolve his relationships with Mrs. Abernathy and Julie and decide his future plans. The movie ends on a semi-happy note, without everything resolved, but with some of his problems mitigated.

Hershey turns in a fairly weak performance, not bringing much credibility to her role as a downcast, emotionally vulnerable mother.

Her seduction of Thompson and her ensuing scorn at having been betrayed by him represent a thoroughly unconvincing emotional transition.

Paltrow plays her role pretty nicely, as the somewhat naive and confused beauty whose high-school glories have not carried over to the rest of her life since then.

Schwimmer turns in a good performance as the unsure, yet studly Thompson.

One may accuse him of turning in a boring performance, yet such an accusation would miss the point of the situation of the protagonist, whose life is a bewildering landscape of unfulfilled promises.

The movie is likely not to be hugely popular with most audiences since it is not quite a comedy, nor an emotional drama.

"The Pallbearer" is a very ambiguous type of show, not lending itself to simple criticism or snideness.

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