When I reviewed The Late Show last week, vomas mentioned another great late-career Carney film, Paul Mazursky’s Harry & Tonto, as an all-time favorite cat movie. I’m now happy to second that.
Carney won Best Actor for this, beating out, among others, Pacino in The Godfather Part II and Nicholson in Chinatown. You could argue the merits of that, but I’m happy that Oscar fell where it did–Chinatown and Godfather Part II loom large enough in the cultural consciousness that people would, and have, found them anyway. Harry & Tonto could use the boost, and Carney’s performance in it is extraordinary: delicately calibrated, lived-in, warm, funny, and intelligent. His Harry Coombes legitimately feels like a man who has lived a long and mostly good life; he’s still invested enough in his own happiness and sense of purpose that his moment-to-moment actions matter, but at the same time, he has the kind of perspective that only comes with age, the ability to turn tragedy into comedy without diminishing it.
Of course, a major highlight of the film is Tonto the cat, playing himself. He’s a gorgeous orange fellow, happy to walk along on a leash or be carried dangling from Harry’s arms; he’s a constant and beloved companion. Tonto also won a well-deserved award for his endearing performance.
Harry & Tonto is a laid-back road trip movie. Harry’s long-time building in New York has been knocked down, and even though he’ll tell you all about how he’s been mugged four times in the last year in his own neighborhood, he’s not really ready to move on, and he’s even less ready to surrender his independence. He goes on a kind of sprawling cross-country road trip, moving from his responsible son Burt’s crowded apartment to his sharp-edged daughter in Chicago to his broke-and-drifting other son in Los Angeles. There’s nothing here that’s deeply surprising–it has the typical road trip movie cast of eccentric characters, plot of interrupted travel plans, hitchhikers, cross-generational friendships, etc.–but it’s all well- and lovingly observed.
Gary Arnold favorably reviewed it for The Washington Post but qualified his praise by noting that it’s “what’s known as a ‘good little picture.'” But it’s really only the film’s sense of spectacle that’s small: it’s big-hearted and broad-minded, and it’s exploring, lightly but movingly, how we find (or make) meaning in our lives, especially when the obvious ways of defining ourselves have fallen away. It may be quiet, but it’s far from insignificant.
Harry & Tonto is available on TCM Online (until December 19) and FuboTV.