Hilarity, Richness of Spirit Imbue 'I'm Not Rappaport'

Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis are superb as the prickly pals

Grumpy old men are always in style during the holiday movie season. The original "Grumpy Old Men" and its sequel arrived in 1993 and 1995, respectively. "My Fellow Americans," which might have been titled "Grumpy Old Presidents," is closing out 1996 with its comic tale of two former chief executives schlepping through the American heartland with assassins at their heels.

Getting into the spirit, playwright Herb Gardner has hauled his popular comedy "I'm Not Rappaport" out of storage and reworked it for the screen. There's a danger that moviegoers will overlook it because it seems outdated (it won awards on Broadway a decade ago), or simply because GOM have become a glut on the market. It will be a pity if the film doesn't find an enthusiastic audience, though, since it carries enough pleasures to lift it above its grumpy old competitors.

Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis play Nat and Midge, two octogenarians who spend their spare time in a patch of New York's Central Park, where they gripe about their problems, reminisce about the past, and spar with each other in petty bickering matches.

On the surface, they have few similarities. Nat is a longtime Jewish socialist who loves a zesty argument, while Midge is an African-American worker whose main goal is to hold his job until the holiday tipping season arrives. But they're united by their New York sensibilities, their craving for companionship, and the fact that each has current difficulties to face.

Nat's fretful daughter has her eye on a nursing home for him, and Midge's unsteady health has been noticed at the apartment building where he works.

Neither is the type to be defeated easily, however, and their friendship promises to help them through their problems - assuming that the friendship can survive Nat's tendency to interfere in Midge's life.

A man of great imagination, Nat has spun so many tales that his park-bench partner has lost all sense of where the truth about him resides, if indeed it resides anywhere at all. This idiosyncrasy takes on serious proportions when Nat's idle chatter turns toward real action in a contemporary world that may have grown too complex and hazardous for him to handle.

The title of "I'm Not Rappaport" comes from a vaudeville routine about a man who refuses to acknowledge that a person he's just encountered is not an old friend but a total stranger instead. This provides a clue to the movie's meaning, since Gardner's real interest lies less in fast-talking comedy than in a surprisingly serious subtext: Nat's rejection of a stable, reliable identity.

Nat is certainly not Rappaport, but since we don't learn his actual name until the story is almost over, he may not turn out to be Nat, either. All we know for sure is that he's an aging fellow who regrets the countless identities and adventures that life never allowed him to have. Now he's testing them out, assessing their possibilities, and stretching them as far as he can, with Midge as his guinea pig. He's a hilarious character, and he's also a touching one. So is Midge, whose personality is less flamboyant but runs just as deep.

In its original Broadway production with Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little as the heroes, "I'm Not Rappaport" was a tight and tidy comedy that mixed laughs and sentiment in well-balanced proportions.

The movie has a looser rhythm and a more rambling structure, bringing in a greater variety of moods, incidents, and locations. Inventive as it is, Gardner's material isn't strong enough to sustain the action over more than two hours, and moviegoers may be squirming in their seats before the final credits.

But this is a quibble. The acting is marvelous, and some of the dialogue is almost inspired, especially when Nat shifts into high gear - cranking out wisecracks, pulling off an outrageous masquerade to fool Midge's employer, and posing as a Mafioso called "Tony the Cane" in one of the story's most manic excursions.

Also appealing is the movie's soft-spoken tribute to old-time idealism, most notably in Nat's fidelity to socialist ideas that he's always seen as the blueprint for a better tomorrow. Whether his notions are right or wrong is less important than his loyalty to hopes and aspirations higher than himself.

It's this same richness of spirit that makes him Midge's faithful companion, even though Midge may wish he'd vanish into the Central Park foliage at times. They're quite a pair, and enjoying their company is enough to give grumpy old men a good name all over again.

'I'm Not Rappaport' has a PG-13 rating. It contains vulgar language as well as drug use and violence in Central Park drug scenes.

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