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Finding Harmony —

April 12, 2012
by

Were it not for Veronica’s recommendation, I probably would have gone to my grave without seeing Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got the Will, a 1990 film adaptation of a Del Shores’ play.

A film revolving around a Southern family who gather to say goodbye to their father, a dying man suffering from advanced dementia? No thanks.

But my wife recalled some parts that she thought I would find interesting, and boy was she ever right.

Bear in mind, this movie has some flaws that may bother people, such as one of the characters who is perpetually dieting and talking about weight loss, some slut shaming, and some rather insensitive humor. But what ultimately bears the story is the humanity of its characters.

The “daddy” of the title is Buford Turnover (Bert Remsen), whose final days are spent mistaking his mother-in-law, Mama Wheelis (Molly McClure), for Paulina Harland, his mistress. For this, and many other reasons, his four children arrive with mixed feelings about their father.

Lurlene (Amy Wright), the oldest, believe she’s been cut from the will, having abandoned the family farm after falling in love with a minister and Jesus. She’s the stereotypical, self-righteous Christian character, whose brand of religion both inspires, irritates and intimidates her family, including Sara Lee (Tess Harper), the next oldest. Meanwhile, Sara Lee, fearful of being seen as the family spinster, buys a fake engagement ring supposedly from her ex, Clarence (Keith Carradine).

Fat Orville (Beau Bridges) arrives with his fat wife Marlene (Patrika Darbo), who’s giddy over the weight she has lost on Herbalean, enters the family home declaring proudly, “Hello everybody, I’ve lost weight!” Adorable and endearing, Marlene suffers verbal and physical abuse at the hands of Orville, a greedy tyrant whose only reason for coming home is to find the will.

Like Lurlene, Orville believes he was struck from the will after sending his son, Jimbo, away to reform school when he caught Jimbo huffing gasoline and smoking marijuana cigarettes. Marlene’s resentment of Orville builds throughout the film, as she gradually builds the strength to confront her contemptible husband.

Last on the scene is Evalita (Beverly D’Angelo), the youngest, and Buford’s favorite, who arrives in a van straddling her latest fiance Harmony Grabowski (Judge Reinhold). Evalita, who has been married six times, is the typical youngest child — an uninhibited, attention-seeking, immature troublemaker (have I mentioned that I’m the youngest of four?). She’s returned to boast of her happiness with Harmony, as well as the demo song they’ve recorded in a studio, and to rub her  zest for living in the face of her family.

A bit flat in places, Shores’ adapted screenplay delves into the dynamics of complex sibling relationships, and although Orville and Lurlene are fairly two-dimensional, the remaining characters have just enough depth to keep us emotionally vested.

In particular, Harmony becomes a central, unifying character, quietly challenging the perceptions of the family, and us, about him, each other, and themselves.

Initially viewed as a hippy outsider, Harmony gradually disarms most of the family, except Orville, who rightfully sees Harmony as a threat. Yet even he is placated by Harmony’s assurance that Orville’s job as a  garbageman (or sanitation engineer) is important.

Our first glimpse at the tenderness of Harmony occurs when Evalita storms out of the house after a fight with her sisters, when she heads for the local tavern. Harmony, who helped Evalita quit drinking and wants to prevent a relapse, is helpless to stop her.

A stranger in a hostile land, Harmony returns to the house and begins to play the family piano, surprising Mama Wheelis who says, “Good Lord, that hippy’s playing ‘I’ll Fly Away.'” Soon, the rest of the family joins him for the traditional spiritual, until Marlene stands by his side, at which point he then whips into a frenetic  version of the hymn that the family sings with exuberance. Buford appears at the door, seeing only a memory of his children singing around the piano.

Harmony helps Mama Wheelis return Buford to bed, caring for him in a way unexpected. Buford stares at Harmony, confused by his long hair, and says, “Pauline?”

Harmony then goes to the bar, where Evalita has been singing and flirting with Clarence, and after joining her with his electric guitar in the country bar, he tries to get her to come home with her. When he tells her that Buford has been asking for her, Evalita tells him to mind his own business, and Harmony goes home alone.

By the end of the first day, Harmony shatters much of the preconceptions people have about him. The next morning, Evalita still hasn’t returned, and Harmony begins to question their relationship. On that same morning, Marlene endures another humiliating exchange with Orville in front of Harmony playfully. Orville screams across the house about her noxious Herbalean BMs, to which Marlene screams back, “It cleanses my system!” only to realize what she’s just yelled in front of the handsome stranger.

While setting the breakfast table, Marlene tells Harmony about Herbalean, and Harmony discourages her from using “fad diets,” telling her “I seem to keep the same weight by just eating healthy.” He tells her how he has made several healthy lifestyle changes, except he still smokes a little marijuana, which immediately interests Marlene.

Marlene confides in Harmony that she tried smoking some of Jimbo’s marijuana, but it turned out to be catnip. When Harmony says, “I want you to try something,” she giggles, “I’ve always wanted to try a marijuana cigarette.” But, instead, Harmony hands her a dry, white rice cake. After being assured that it barely has an calories, Marlene chomps it regretfully, comparing it to the Styrofoam lining of an ice chest.

Although never explicitly mentioned as a weight loss strategy, Harmony does present the dry rice cake as a “healthy” alternative (with a little peanut butter and honey). For a brief moment I hoped that I was watching a rudimentary Health at Every Size® scene, but in reality the rice cake serves as a sort of dog whistle call to “healthy” weight loss.

Rice cakes are de facto diet food. I don’t know anyone who eats rice cakes because they enjoy the flavor or texture alone. So I was disappointed that Harmony seemed to offer Marlene a hand off the dieting coaster, only to help her toward “healthy” weight loss. But given that Harmony never mentions weight loss, and his habit of defying perceptions, perhaps I should suspend my disbelief and assume Harmony is the one person who eats rice cakes for rice cakes’ sake.

When Orville arrives on the scene, Harmony ducks out the window just before Orville begins a physical confrontation with Marlene. When he pushes her up against a wall and demands that she not talk back, she fights back saying, “You take your hands off of me. I’m taking Phil Donahue’s advice and I’m gonna stand up as an equal partner in this marriage” before stomping his foot.

When Evalita finally returns that afternoon, dropped off by Clarence, all hell breaks loose. Sara Lee confronts Evalita about sleeping with her (fake) fiance, but before Harmony can confront her, Buford is rushed to the hospital, where he reconciles with his children in a tender scene that is cut short when Orville asks Buford where the will is.

While Orville and Evalita scour the house for the will, Harmony takes Marlene for a ride in his van. When they return, high on the marijuana cigarettes, Harmony and Marlene giggle and goof around in the kitchen, having what seems to be the time of Marlene’s life.

Then Marlene falls off the Herbalean wagon with a bad case of the munchies. Marlene raids the fridge, discovering pie and the makings of a pot roast sandwich with about 20 slices of tomatoes.

For me, this scene encapsulates the restriction/disinhibition cycle that characterizes almost all weight loss attempts: a person can restrict their caloric intake for so long before some life-altering event (or in this case, a mind-altering substance) lowers a person’s restrictive behavior, leading to a compensation, or disinhibition, for the self-deprivation.

And in the midst of Marlene’s dietary disinhibition, Harmony tells Marlene that she’s beautiful and funny and sincere, and tells her that he’s falling in love. Marlene fights her instincts, as Harmony kisses her ear and neck, showering her with compliments and praise, before she finally gives in to her desires and kisses Harmony back.

Then Orville returns, and the two lovebirds separate. Orville suspects something between the two, and begins belittling Marlene’s failure to stick to Herbalean and talks about how fat she’s going to get and how all her friends will start talking. Humiliated, Marlene runs from the room, leaving Orville and Harmony.

At this point, I began to see Orville and Harmony as metaphors for restriction and disinhibition, respectively.

Restriction, and Orville, control Marlene through self-loathing and commitment to an ideal that does not reflect reality. Marlene must suppress her desire to be loved and treated with respect, just as she must suppress her desire for a pot roast sandwich and a slice of pie. Her desire to be loved by those who gives us pleasure is as instinctive as her desire to eat food that gives us pleasure.

So is it any coincidence that at the moment Marlene enters the disinhibition phase with her diet, recalling the simple, sweet pleasure of a bite of pie, that she also enters a phase of disinhibition with her love? And is it any surprise that it’s at this moment of disinhibition in both areas of her life that she begins to see just how toxic her diet, and her relationship, have been?

For me, this scene is worth the price of admission of what is, admittedly, a rather mediocre movie. Veronica told me that this scene was the first time she had ever seen a fat woman portrayed as a love interest, and that it had a profound impact on how she saw herself. And the beauty of Harmony and Marlene is that it doesn’t seem stilted or fetish-y or unrealistic: Harmony simply doesn’t see Marlene’s weight as an obstacle to her beauty or her character.

It’s at this point in the cycle when a person can choose to either recommit to restriction, or else learn to normalize their relationship with food, love, or both.

When the will is finally traced to a locked strongbox, Orville, unable to break the lock with a crowbar, must step aside for Harmony to pick the lock. With the entire family present, Harmony admits that he learned to pick locks as a burglar, for which he served time in jail. Still lashing out in the wake of her behavior, Evalita calls Harmony a loser, just like her six previous husbands, and Harmony storms out.

When he returns, he has thrown Evalita’s belongings out of his van and he offers his hand to Marlene, and we find ourselves hoping for her sake that she will confront her fears and walk out on Orville, and Herbalean, forever.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2012 2:49 pm

    p.s. It’s on Netflix instant streaming: http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Daddy_s_Dyin_…_Who_s_Got_the_Will/70017432?trkid=2361637

    Peace,
    Shannon

  2. MrsS permalink
    April 14, 2012 5:46 pm

    You said that the movie is mediocre. Your review certainly isn’t. I enjoyed reading it.

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