Friday, March 25, 2022

All in the Family: “Big” and “A Few Good Men”

Years ago, when I was a camp counselor, one of the kiddies was Lucas Reiner, youngest child of comedy legend Carl. I confess I kept an eye on little Lucas, waiting for him to say something funny. Lucas has since turned to screenwriting, but it’s his older brother who has gone on to a major Hollywood career. Rob Reiner started as an actor, first in local little theatres and then as Mike Stivic (aka Meathead) on TV’s groundbreaking All in the Family (1971-1979). But it was not long before Rob tried his hand at directing. Starting with the hilarious mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap (1984), he particularly excelled at comedy, helming such classics as The Princess Bride (1987) and When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989).

 Gradually, though, Rob Reiner approached less light-hearted material, starting with a grand-guignol-style horror flick, Misery, based on Stephen King’s nightmarish novel. That was 1990; two years later Reiner garnered his only Oscar nomination, as producer (as well as director) of A Few Good Men. It’s a film I finally caught up with on a recent plane flight. Sure, I already knew the movie’s most famous exchange (“I want the truth!” “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”), but I wasn’t prepared for how riveting this courtroom thriller proved to be. A Few Good Men has a complicated, dialogue-heavy script (it was Aaron Sorkin’s first screenplay credit), and it deals with the arcane issue of a Code Red among U.S. Marines at Guantanamo Bay. But Reiner keeps things moving, and the film certainly made my hours in the friendly skies fly by.

 One of the pleasures of watching movies on a coast-to-coast flight is that you can skip from one genre (or era) to another. I started my flight with a true oldie, Grand Hotel, though in the age of COVID Greta Garbo’s “I want to be alone” certainly sounded anachronistic. Then, following A Few Good Men, I plunged into the most airy of comedies, 1988’s Big, in which a boy of 13 finds himself growing overnight into Tom Hanks. It was only in retrospect that I discovered a connection between these last two films. Big was directed by the late Penny Marshall, who for ten years (1971-1981) was married to Rob Reiner. What a wacky couple they must have made! Marshall revealed her own flair for comedy first as a TV actress (Laverne and Shirley) and then as a director of movies like A League of Their Own. Big, I feel, is her comic masterpiece, energized by her insight into the way kids look at the adult world.

 Directors who come from an acting background surely have a special flair for bringing out the best in their performers.  Big wouldn’t have worked without Hanks’ antsy, exuberant, very slightly horny performance. I laughed with delight at him trying to shimmy into a pair of much-too-small jeans, and then later (at a fancy cocktail party) having his first encounter with baby corn. The film’s romantic thread, involving a very adult co-worker, avoids being grotesque because of his spot-on childlike innocence.

 A Few Good Men too is beautifully cast, starting with Tom Cruise’s cocky but secretly sensitive young Navy attorney and Demi Moore’s conflicted Naval officer. (It’s a mark of the film’s maturity that—though there’s a smoldering subtext between these two—the script never breaks away for the obligatory romance.) Smaller roles are equally well handled, but of course the film’s secret weapon is its villain, Colonel Nathan Jessup, USMC. The cat-who-ate-the-canary part of this smug, haughty martinet fits Jack Nicholson like a glove. Good show!



  1. Wonderful piece. As for “A Few Good Men”? My wife and I have watched it more times than any other movie. If it comes on, and it often does, we stop everything and watch every frame. OOOps, she just called to me, it’s on, gotta go. Bob.

  2. Do you mean to tell me that "A Few Good Men" came up on your TV screen just as you were writing to me, Bob? Great story--but I don't think I buy it. Let me know . . . I CAN handle the truth!

  3. I lied. However, my wife and I also love the exchange that precedes the moment of “truth.” An insanely angry Col. Jessup demands to know whether Lt. Kafee is getting his point. Jessup-Lieutenant Kafee, AM I MAKING myself clear????? Kafee-Yes sir. Jessup-PERFECTLY clear???? Kafee-“CRYSTAL”. (Pause). Oh, one more thing, Did you order a Code Red?……. Duck Bev, duck. Bob