Not since "Straight Time" (1978) with Dustin Hoffman has there been a film that more convincingly depicted the plight of the ex-con in his struggle to earn an honest living than the engaging "American Heart" (at the Edwards South Coast Village in Santa Ana, AMC Century 14 in Century City, GGC Beverly Connection in Beverly Hills, Laemmle's Town Center in Encino). Indeed, "Straight Time" was based on the novel "No Beast So Fierce," whose author Eddie Bunker served as "American Heart's" technical adviser.
Jeff Bridges surely gives one of his finest portrayals as Jack Kelson, who means to learn from his mistakes, a guy for whom the grind of trying to make ends meet and accepting an unwanted parenthood instills dreams of heading to Alaska for a better life. Bridges' Jack, with his rueful self-knowledge and restless spirit, cunning and charm, embodies the ex-con at his most romantic--sexy, laid-back and bulging with jailhouse muscles. As his 14-year-old son Nick, Edward Furlong holds his own with a performance of sweetness, intelligence and tender sobriety.
As the opening credits for the highly engaging "American Heart" unroll, we're shown a series of cheerful snapshots of a smiling man (Bridges) playing with his young son. The happy faces come to an abrupt stop with a prison mug shot of the man, now looking suitably grim.
Having served five years for robbing a jewelry store, Jack prepares to leave state prison when Nick arrives to meet him. Not at all happy to see his son, he even tries to ditch the kid, who promptly outsmarts him, and they're soon bound for Seattle, settling in a seedy, once grand Beaux Arts apartment house.
Nick, whose mother apparently disappeared soon after he was born, is determined to reclaim his father. Director Martin Bell and his writer Peter Silverman understand well that it's crucial that Nick's struggle to win his father's love must be steadfastly free of sentimentality to seem real, but that it can be told with spiky humor. Gradually, we're able to see Jack's resistance to Nick as part of a larger uncertainty as to whether he can actually take responsibility for his own life and stay out of trouble.
In the film's deftest sequence we watch Jack call a woman (Lucinda Jenney) from a pay phone and proceed to meet her in a bar. It's not until after they've made love does he reveal he's the former inmate she's been writing to, courtesy of the American Heart, a publication in which prisoners solicit correspondence.
In the meantime Nick, who's taken on a paper route, finds himself drawn to a tough but angelic-looking girl (Tracey Kapisky), who's already hustling while her mother (Shareen Mitchell) works as a peep show go-go dancer.
Not surprisingly, "American Heart," photographed with a gritty lyricism by James R. Bagdonas, owes much of its atmosphere and its insight to Bell's "Streetwise" (1984). That's the director's remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary on Seattle's street kids, inspired by a Life magazine photo essay shot by his wife, Mary Ellen Mark, the renowned photojournalist who is "American Heart's" associate producer. For all its impact, and Bridges' deep drawing upon his resources, "American Heart" ultimately doesn't have the sharp, unforgettable edge of "Streetwise."
Bell and his actors adroitly involve us in the lives of Jack and Nick, their fate becoming a matter of increasing uncertainty and concern. So far so good, but Bell and Silverman propel them toward a fate that may well seem far more inevitable to the filmmakers than to us, leaving us realizing that sad endings have to be earned just as fully as happier ones.
There are credible alternatives to "American Heart's" finish, and they might have effectively involved Jenney's attractive Charlotte, whom the filmmakers all but drop from their story just at the point when her presence cries to be greater, offering a valid recourse for the son as well as the father. At the very least Charlotte, nicely played by Jenney, deserves to have been given as much a chance to impact upon the Kelsons as Jack's wily onetime protege (Don Harvey).
For many viewers "American Heart" (rated R for language and for sexual situations) may have enough going for it to sustain a finish that seems shamelessly heart-tugging and overly preordained, but it might have been a richer, more encompassing experience had its makers not so easily equated being downbeat with being realistic and honest.
'American Heart' Jeff Bridges: Jack Kelson Edward Furlong: Nick Kelson Lucinda Jenney: Charlotte Tracey Kapisky: Molly
A Triton Pictures release. Director Martin Bell. Producers Rosilyn Heller, Jeff Bridges. Executive producer Carey Brokaw. Co-producer Neil Koenigsberg. Screenplay by Peter Silverman; from a story by Silverman and Bell. Cinematographer James R. Bagdonas. Editor Nancy Baker. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Joel Schiller. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (for language and for sexual situations).