Although he’s best known for making such big-canvas escapist fare as Superman (1978) and Lethal Weapon (1987), Richard Donner has directed a couple of smaller movies over the years, generally to disappointing commercial and critical results. However, one of these intimate pictures, the offbeat redemption saga Inside Moves, is among the most affecting things Donner has ever made. A story about emotionally and physically handicapped individuals bonding in a seedy part of Oakland, California, the picture boasts playful humor, sensitive performances, and that most durable of themes: the triumph of the human spirit. Yes, Inside Moves is manipulative, saccharine, and unbelievable. For those wiling to follow where the film leads, however, it’s also quite touching.
The story opens with the sort of spectacle for which Donner is deservedly famous: Depressed everyman Roary (John Savage) ascends to a top floor in a skyscraper, climbs out a window, jumps, and falls in slow motion until he crashes into a car with a horrible cacophony of broken bones and broken glass. Surviving the suicide attempt with major injuries, Roary takes a new path toward self-destruction, gravitating to a dive called Max’s Bar so he can drink himself into oblivion. The unexpected friendships that Roary forms at Max’s bring him back to life. Among others, Roary connects with Jerry (David Morse), the gentle-giant bartender whose promising basketball career was derailed by a bum leg, and Stinky (Bert Remsen), the amiable senior who participates in the bar’s ongoing card game event though he’s blind. Roary also begins a romance with Louise (Diana Scarwid), a barfly with personal demons of her own.
Based on a novel by Todd Walton and written for the screen by the team of Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, whose scripts together were distinguished by creaky plots and gentle character-driven humor, Inside Moves pivots on a highly improbable plot point: Charitable friends and innovative doctors fix Jerry’s leg, allowing him to resume his aborted basketball career. Thereafter, the question of the piece becomes whether Jerry will abandon the colorful characters who supported him when he was down, or whether he’ll join the rest of society in shunning “cripples.”
Even though the story is absurdly contrived, the moment-to-moment flow of the movie is compelling. Morse gives the picture its heart, essaying a man who needs to reconcile ambition with compassion, while Scarwid, in an Oscar-nominated performance, incarnates a woman struggling to fix a damaged self-image. Savage is deeply present in every one of his scenes, though his performance is riddled with so many Method-actor tics that some viewers will find him more mannered than sympathetic; that said, his intensity never wavers, which helps sell the more bogus aspects of the narrative. As for Donner, he occasionally opts for easy uplift with pithy punchlines and tacky visual crescendos, but, generally speaking, he employs his skill for supervising loose and occasionally improvised acting, fusing the denizens of Max’s Bar into an appealing community. It’s also worth noting that Inside Moves has many fans within the disabled community. Given the picture’s subject matter, that seal of approval matters.
Inside Moves: FUNKY