You don’t have to remember the 1943 mid-WWII Oscar winning “The Human Comedy” to realize that Meg Ryan’s version, “Ithaca,” is missing something.
Sentimental and slow, this “Life on the Homefront” melodrama lacks the pathos and punch of its predecessor. And without those, a cast of name actors who did director Ryan a favor (Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, Hamish Linklater) and the generous sprinkling of William Saroyan aphorisms and period-perfect setting lacks purpose or a reason for being made.
Homer Macaulay (Alex Neustaedter) is a 14 year-old ready to start his work life as a telegraph office delivery boy in 1942. His older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis and Meg) is in the Army and about to ship out.
He’s got a much younger brother, Odysseus, and an older sister, Bess. Mom (Ryan) is carrying on and carrying grief in her every gesture. Her husband, Homer’s dad (Hanks) has recently passed. She still sees him in her more trying moments.
Homer works for the kindly office manager (Hamish Linklater) and an elderly lush of a telegraph operator (Sam Shepard). As he races to beat Western Union on every delivery, Homer sees the sadness and wrenching change of war, up close. He delivers “The Secretary of War regrets to inform you” notices to the families of the missing or killed.
But his brother writes him thoughtful, philosophical and fatherly letters about “this wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world.” The boss, Tom (Linklater) offers “The best part of a good man stays,” as an explanation of untimely unjust death.
And Mom has a few thoughts of her own, that “There will always be pain in this world…A good man will seek to take the pain out of things.”
Young Neustaedter (TV’s “The Colony”) is properly sensitive, but dull in a part that seems dulled down by the intervening decades. Mickey Rooney played the kid in 1943, and gave him more of that antic spark of life that the world has to beat out of him.
Ryan so underplays the ongoing grief that her character never once rises to “touching,” something she’s been famous for achieving all through her career.
In the rest of the cast, only Shepard stands out, a sauced sage who dodges the “death” question from the kid with a weary wit.
“That’s a very young question, and I’m an old man.”
Frequent collaborators Ryan and Hanks have just a couple of scenes together, only one with dialogue.
Richmond, Va. and environs ably substitutes for WWII inland California, and Ryan inventively gets around the movie’s military requirements by having letter-writing scenes set on board a train, or in a bunk. Battles are fought in the dark.
But even if this wasn’t a period piece, it would feel exhausted, dull and dated. The world has grown up a lot since WWII, grown more cynical. A wise barkeep (Scott Shepherd) can deliver his world-weary appraisal of the human race — “The fightin’s inside us. It’s what we are…till we ain’t.”
There’s just no way to make that sentiment, novel for its time, new to anyone hearing it today.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, a war image, and smoking
Cast: Alex Neustaedter, Hamish Linklater, Sam Shepard, Jack Quaid, Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks
Credits: Directed by Meg Ryan, script by Erik Jendresen, based on the novel “The Human Comedy” by William Saroyan. A Momentum/eOne release.
Running time: 1:33