Perhaps the best thing about Five Easy Pieces is that it stars Jack Nicholson. And Karen Black: Nicholson’s moderately but comically cross-eyed co-star. Her acting isn’t great, but her unfortunate affliction will keep you giggling the whole movie long.
Unintentional physical comedy aside, Five Easy Pieces is an OK movie. And back in 1970, it was nominated for three academy awards. A product of the Hollywood New Wave, it was one of the first exciting forays into anomie and character study. But like so many films of its era, it hasn’t aged well. Once titillating and exploratory, the subject matter now seems almost hackneyed. And, consequently, the film has lost some of its glitter.
But Five Easy Pieces still has a lot to offer. The hard core amongst Nicholson’s fans will want to see it just because it exists. In his first starring role, Nicholson delivers the classics that made his career. Bobby Dupea is a former child prodigy, now disaffected, itinerant oil rig worker. His friction with the lesser minds surrounding him elicits plenty of the disgusted looks and warranted outbursts that make Nicholson’s characters so beloved.
The best Jack in the movie is comic gold: Bobby, his cross-eyed girlfriend, an obnoxiously loquacious lesbian and her girlfriend arrive at a nowhere road side diner. Add a dull-witted waitress, a “no substitutions” policy, and Bobby’s demand for an order of toast off the menu. Hilarity ensues:
Jack: I'd like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Jack: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Jack: I want you to hold it between your knees.
The rest of the script offers smaller gems. The personal tragedies that are Bobby, his hillbilly friend, dotty, suicide-prune girlfriend and emotionally fragile sister shape themselves into a sort of black comedy. So it has that going for it.
And, despite its age, it has post-modern relevance. Bobby is f*&^%d up. He doesn’t fit into the bourgeois world he came from or the white trash world he wandered into. He ditches his girlfriend, schtoops his brother’s fiancé and is generally miserable.
But there is no moralizing, no right or wrong answers to be had. Just the endless search for “auspicious beginnings” that characterizes so much of the human experience. And that’s refreshing. Even 40 years later.