Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 9, 2020)
With 1982’s Cannery Row, we find an adaptation of that 1945 John Steinbeck novel as well as its 1954 sequel Sweet Thursday. Set during the 1940s, we go to an economically disadvantaged area of Monterey, California.
Called “Cannery Row” because fish packaging facilities used to thrive there, the area now acts as a haven for society’s outcasts. Marine biologist Doc (Nick Nolte) lives here to be close to his trade, while newcomer Suzy (Debra Winger) gains employment at a local bordello.
When they meet, Doc and Suzy develop a connection, but they also butt heads and find it hard to come together despite their attraction. We follow their relationship amid the hardships that surround them.
Though regarded as one of the great American novelists – and the winner of a Nobel Prize – it seems like Steinbeck lost cultural relevance over the decades, at least in how his work adapted to other mediums. 1939’s Of Mice and Men, 1940’s Grapes of Wrath and 1955’s East of Eden all earned plaudits and remain viewed as classics.
After that, though, it becomes more difficult to locate successful adaptations of Steinbeck. 1992’s Of Mice and Men got great reviews but failed to find an audience, and it offers pretty much the only high-profile Steinbeck film since 1955.
Other than Row, that is, which boasted two actual movie stars via Nolte and Winger. Though his directorial debut, David S. Ward won an Oscar as the screenwriter of 1973’s The Sting, so he brought a pedigree behind the camera as well.
None of this seemed to matter in 1982. Row got mediocre reviews and flopped at the box office.
38 years later, Row doesn’t show signs that audience or critics got it wrong. Inconsistent and messy, the movie flails.
When I review a film based on a book I didn’t read, I always run into the issue of “blame”. Do the flaws stem from the source, or do the problems emanate formally from the film itself?
In this case, I figure most of the issues reside with the filmmakers, partly because they bite off more than they could chew. Both Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday offer relatively short novels, but when you pack two books into one 120-minute film, the end result can seem overstuffed.
That becomes the case with the cinematic Row, as it crams in too much material to explore in a satisfying manner across its running time. While most of the movie concentrates on the Doc/Suzy relationship, we get lots with the local oddballs, and that turns into an issue.
Given the title, I get why the film gives us a moderate amount of this material, as Steinbeck’s Row concentrates on these characters’ connection to Doc. Most of the movie actually adapts Thursday, as Suzy doesn’t even exist as a character in the Row novel, so we need some of the locals or else we get little real link to the title work.
All this feels a bit perplexing, as I don’t know why the filmmakers didn’t simply make a movie based solely on Thursday. A look at that novel’s synopsis shows how much of the flick sticks with its plot, and it seems like it would stand on its own pretty well, so it doesn’t feel like we need the elements from Row to make sense of Thursday’s events.
As such, I don’t really get why the producers even bothered with the broader Row concepts. Maybe they thought Cannery Row enjoyed stronger name recognition than Sweet Thursday, but I doubt this would’ve mattered with prospective viewers.
Whatever the case, the two sides of the cinematic Row don’t work, as the time we spend away from Doc and Suzy feels unnecessary for the most part. These scenes lack much plot relevance, and the characters tend to seem like they come from a different movie.
I’m not sure I’d describe Suzy and Doc as wholly realistic roles, mainly because Ward likes to use them in a “screwball comedy” way. Their scenes often rely on fast, snappy patter, so the movie uses them as a throwback to period actors.
Compared to the others, though, Suzy and Doc feel wholly believable, as Row stocks the rest of the movie with cartoons. Actors like M. Emmet Walsh and Frank McRae deliver performances straight out of Looney Tunes, and these takes don’t mesh with the more naturalistic(ish) vibe of Doc and Suzy.
This leads to an awkward mix of kitsch, drama and whimsy. Even with its basic focus on Doc and Suzy, we get such a cluttered array of goofy characters that the package doesn’t coalesce and Row ends up as an unfocused mess.