As Assisted Living opens, it looks as though Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) has chosen a nursing home as the stage for his latest pseudo–documentary spoof. Sprawling green lawns and hallways of industrial ceramic tile and fluorescent lights are interwoven with interviews with staff earnestly explaining their perspectives on care for the elderly.
But this is no Guest mock–umentary. The absurd elements of this movie aren't played for laughs, they're played for reflection.
Written, directed and filmed by 22–year–old Elliot Greenebaum (he's 25 now), the idea for Assisted Living started out as experimental documentary. And while it was indeed filmed in a working nursing home in Kentucky with actual residents populating most scenes, Greenebaum opted to employ a few actors and incorporate a plot—kinda.
At the center of the action—and I use that term very loosely—is Todd (Michael Bonsignore), a slacker pot–smoking janitor who spends his days riding the hallways in a wheelchair and playing practical jokes on the residents. He calls residents pretending to be dead relatives to give them reports about heaven. It might sound mean, but it comes across as benign and even kind, an attempt to soothe fears about death. By the way, according to Todd, there will be sex in heaven, all the sex you want, "but without, you know, the inconvenience of bodies." Just in case you were wondering.
Ostensibly, Todd smokes pot to ward off the looming specter of death that hangs over the nursing home, Meadow View, but because we don't see him anyplace but at work, the audience has no idea of what really motivates him. It's not until we meet Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley, a one–time circus performer), that we get a glimpse at Todd's frustration with himself and the movie sends out an emotional flare to the audience, hailing it to come get involved in the lives of these people.
Mrs. Pearlman is compelling as a women teetering between moments of clarity and increasingly frequent moments of senility as Alzheimer's wreaks its havoc. She spends her days waiting for her son—who's moved to Australia—to send for her, to take her away from Meadow View and its bingo games and squabbles over what to watch on TV. In a particularly successful scene—and by that I mean one where I did get involved with the characters—Todd, in typical Todd fashion, calls Mrs. Pearlman pretending to be the son, with devastating results.
At first glance, the title "Assisted Living" is obviously a reference to the type of care received at Meadow View, which is, by the way, a good nursing home. This is no exposé on the warehousing of the elderly. But one starts to wonder if perhaps the title also takes a stab at Todd's pot use. Or maybe it's trying to suggest that in the relationship that results, Todd and Mrs. Pearlman are assisting each other in living.
I think that last hypothesis is interesting. More interesting than this movie, unfortunately. For all its artful images of gnarled hands and frozen faces meant to give us a glimpse of our own mortality, this movie is starkly unsentimental and it left me cold. Not because I'm averse to a realistic depictions of the physical accouterments of old age, but because they are only the easiest part of the story to tell: "Old people often look like this, live like this." I'm more interested in the stories behind the age spots and wrinkles; I wonder what tasks those gnarled hands loved and hated in their more flexible days. Mrs. Pearlman is the one character for whom we're given a measure of context for her stay at Meadow View, and I would have liked more, both about her and about Todd. But with the film clocking in at a mere 77 minutes, such context is never developed.
There is a certain meditative grace to the cinematography here, and I think Greenebaum has a promising career ahead of him, but after a while, well, I was just plain bored. And in that respect, I was in cahoots with the Meadow View residents, who seemed pretty bored themselves.
Editor's note: This film is currently showing in limited release, and the list of theaters is always changing. Click here for a current list of showings.Discussion starters
- If you've had relatives in nursing homes, how does this depiction of old age and life in a nursing home compare with your experience? Is this an accurate picture? In what ways, yes? In what ways, no?
- What's your take on the title Assisted Living? What or whom might it refer to?
- What do you think about Todd's phone conversations with the residents of Meadow View? Were they mean practical pranks or something else? And do you think his phone conversation with Mrs. Pearlman was a turning point for him in some way?
- It appears that Mrs. Pearlman has been abandoned at Meadow View by her son. To what extent do you think children have a responsibility to take care of their parents in old age? Was this son fulfilling that responsibility? Why or why not?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Other than Todd's pot smoking, there's nothing objectionable here.
Photos © Copyright Economic Projectionscompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 02/24/05
Director Elliot Greenebaum's first feature—a mix of documentary footage and fiction called Assisted Living—offers a unique, comical glimpse of life among the residents of a Kentucky center for the aging. It might seem crass for a filmmaker to offer a comedy about the elderly, especially when the central character is the facility's pot–smoking janitor. But some reviewers, religious press and mainstream alike, are discovering good intentions and even some redemptive themes in the film.
Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The absurd elements of this movie aren't played for laughs, they're played for reflection. [But] for all its artful images . . . this movie is starkly unsentimental and it left me cold."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a modest but poignant docudrama. In our culture, which holds the elderly at arm's length and generally feels at best uncomfortable with old age, the film's underlying message of intergenerational connection may be of positive value to older adolescents. Assisted Living manages, despite its no–frills look, to offer a moving meditation on loneliness and the human need for contact and compassion."
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