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Weeds (1987)

Weeds is the story of an armed robber, Lee Umstetter (Nick Nolte), sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in San Quentin.

After two suicide attempts, Umstetter accidentally stumbles on Genet and Tolstoy in the prison library and, inspired by Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, writes a prison play that is performed by him and his fellow inmates.

The play receives good notices from a San Francisco critic, Lillian Bingington (Rita Taggart in a performance that is all tremulous smiles and brimming eyes) and the group are on their way.

The critic mounts a campaign to have Lee released, he gets out of prison, moves in with her and reassembles the group of by now ex-crims to take the play on a college tour.

The film traces Lee’s inevitable progress from ex-con to Broadway star, through all the tears, reversals, joys and struggles that are obligatory in this genre, familiar, in an admittedly cruder and less intellectual form, from the Rocky cycle.

The theatre troupe itself provides a rich source of humour but often over-the-top character acting; there is the black Muslim murderer Bagdad; the pimp, Navarro; Claude, the timid embezzler, and Dave the flasher, who uses an improvisatory moment in the play to practise his particular enthusiasm to a surprisingly mild reaction from the audience.

The most interesting of these and the most subtle characterisation is Burt, the dumb shoplifter, played by Bill Forsythe (familiar to viewers in Once Upon A Time In America and Raising Arizona).

Weeds advertises itself as conveying what it “feels like to be on the inside”, but this is precisely what it doesn’t do.

The representations of the play itself are largely confined to the musical numbers and, apart from cringingly obvious lyrics straight out of Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals like “I want to be free, I want to be a man”, we get little sense of the real content of the play.

As the fictional New York critic in the film acerbically observes after its NY opening, it is “an unsuccessful mixture of musical spectacle and social realism”.

The film often relies for its emotional effect on fairly horrible electronic pastiches of Mahler and Wagner in the climactic or tender moments and hackneyed visual devices like extensive use of rack focus and telephoto lens to produce cute effects of spatial disorientation.

And Nick Nolte’s physicality and presence, usually so compelling, turn merely lumpish here.

All in all, apart from the early section set in the prison, which is rather good, this is a potentially interesting and important story overwhelmed by sentimentality, its intellectual and political bite swamped in schmaltz.

Lee Umstetter
Nick Nolte
Bagdad
Ernie Hudson
Lillian Bingington
Rita Taggart
Dave
Mark Rolston
Claude
Lane Smith
Navarro
John Toles-Bey
Carmine
Joe Mantegna
Lazarus
J.J. Johnston
Burt the Booster
William Forsythe
Mom Umstetter
Anne Ramsey
Pop Umstetter
Ray Reinhardt

Director
John Hancock