If I told you the premise of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which I’m going to, you’ll realize that it doesn’t sound like anything that would be good. Surprisingly it is good, really good actually, thanks to the direction and inventive staging of Robert Altman, as well as great performances by the likes of Karen Black and Cher. See how crazy this sounds? But just trust me here.
In a random out of the way town in Texas (think of that town in The Last Picture Show, but in color), a high school James Dean fanclub formed during the filming of Giant nearby. The fanclub reunites twenty years later at the titular five and dime to reminisce about times gone by, and end up getting in a lot of arguments and revealing secrets that are perhaps better left unsaid. Sissy (Cher), still works there and has been for the past twenty years. She doubts herself after her man left her long ago. Mona (Sandy Dennis) returns to the town after leaving her mentally challenged son, Jimmy Dean, behind. She believes him to be the son of James Dean, conceived during the filming of Giant, but the others are not so sure. Joanne (Karen Black) rides up to the five and dime in a fancy sports car, but nobody recognizes her at all. These stories all intertwine with flashbacks from twenty years ago, as all is revealed and the women do some healing.
This sounds melodramatic, soapy, and all around terrible, but the execution saves it, it really does. Based on the theatrical play also directed by Altman after his exile from Hollywood following the flop of Popeye, it takes a lot from the theater for sure. The set is very inventive, apparently taken right off the stage. The flashback take place in one half of the store, whereas the present day material takes place in another half. These are cleverly and straightforwardly designated by a two way mirror behind the counter separating the two halves of the store, the type that you see in police stations. You always know what time period you’re in, and the lighting changes to designate which side of the mirror you’re seeing through are always seamless.
When a plot twist about who did what twenty years ago is being revealed every few seconds, you better have good acting to back it up. This film does, thankfully. Maybe not every moment comes across, but you feel the interior life of each woman which more than makes up for it. They’re each delusional in some way, and throughout the film they force each other to take a look at themselves and the choices they’ve made. It’s no coincidence that the window to the past is actually a two-way mirror; looking at the past is the only way for them to know their present selves. Sandy Dennis’ character is definitely the most obnoxious, she is probably the most delusional character in the film and is also the prejudiced and annoying. If you transcribed her speaking manner on paper, you’d have lot of words with no punctuation. It’s quite satisfying to see the truth thrown in her face by the end of the film; she needs to confront it more than the other two. Everyone turns in a great performance though, fitting together as a ensemble perfectly while maintaining the individuality of their characters.
The film is not opened up at all, and the lighting and sky effects do look pretty theatrical (and I do mean that in a slightly disparaging way). It’s very obvious that you are artificially stuck in this one location because the play demands it; even if you had no idea this was an adaptation you’d be able to figure it out fairly quickly. Nevertheless, the acting and the main set with the two-way mirror effects definitely carry the film.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean may appeal to me in part because of the melodramatic plot twists happening every few minutes, but I do believe it is an effective film nonetheless. The three main actresses are really good, and the film has some important, if obvious, things to say about resolving one’s past issues. It’s not just a pat melodrama though, you do get the sense that these are real emotions being portrayed, even if the specifics are overwrought. Five and Dime is probably not a film I would’ve seen outside of class, and I may never see it again, but I am very grateful for having seen it the one time.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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