Ralph Waite is known to millions of TV watchers as the benign father figure on "The Waltons." Before becoming an actor he had a number of other careers, however, including stints as a social worker and a minister. Now this versatile man has drawn on all his artistic talents and made a movie of his own -- as author, director, producer, and star.
"On the Nickel" deals with alcoholism -- a subject Waite views with much passion, perhaps because he once suffered from a drinking problem of his own. The movie howls with pain and rage, and sighs with sorrow over lives laid waste. Yet it never loses a sense of savage joy and grim humor, signs of Waite's apparent faith in the resilience of the human spirit. Its hatred of the bottle becomes so strong you can almost smell it. Still, its main emphasis is on the compassion Waite clearly feels toward the self-made victims of his story.
"On the Nickel" is a wacky movie that lurches from tragedy to slapstick in order to make its points. Though its methods and technique are often questionable, its energy and commitment never flag.
The main character is a former drunk named Sam, played by Donald Moffat. He travels into "the Nickel" the skid row of Los Angeles -- to find his closest friend, a man called C.G. (played by Waite) who is still a wino. At the end of the story, the values of love and fellowship have, which the film suggests are all a derelict like C.G. has left, have been reaffirmed.
Though "On the Nickel" offers no rosy solutions, it paints a picture that is ultimately hopeful, in a minimal kind of way. Some of the time, in some of the cases, on some of the skid rows of the world, the best human instincts can blossom with sudden and unexpected brightness. This is far from the gloomiest conclusion that could have emerged from Waite's somber material.
Visually, "On the Nickel" has an authenticity that is positively grubby. This is not the closeted alcoholism of "Days of Wine and Roses." Nor is it the carefully dramatic alcoholism of "The Lost Weekend," with Ray Milland decorously hiding bottles in the chandelier. This is the street-level thing -- with filthy bodies, bad health, and minds eaten away from the inside.
This is an appalling situation, but the film has film has powerfully positive goals. Besides urging compassion for its miserable characters and their real-life counterparts, "On the Nickel" reminds us of a grimly important social problem, and alleges inadequacies in the "establishment" approach to that problem.