Grandma Moses Jokes, Anyone?

Harry and Tonto directed by Paul Mazursky coming to Boston

HARRY AND TONTO is about as exciting as a belt of Geritol but it may be a sign that Hollywood has found a new special-interest group to exploit. The elderly are often the last minority that Americans get around to noticing, and until recently movie executives were no exception. But it seems the strange success of Harold and Maude, a spotty movie about a teenage boy in love with a septuagenarian woman, has revealed the market's potential.

Harry and Tonto opens warmly and realistically as Harry, an elderly retired teacher, is about to be evicted from his apartment on New York's decaying Upper West Side. Along with his faithful cat, Tonto, he stands up to the police and the wreckers until his son arrives to hustle him off in embarrassment. After a few weeks spent living with his son's family, Harry realizes how many household problems he is aggravating and decides to visit his other children in Chicago and California. Writers Josh Greenfield and Paul Mazursky probably had King Lear's peregrinations in mind, but the comparison is so far-fetched that it hardly counts.

As he wanders across America, much the same things happen to Harry as happen to most of Hollywood's other recent Odysseuses. He gets laid, hustled, busted, and misses his bus. His daughter in Chicago coolly realizes that the closest they can come to understanding one another is argument; his son in California clutches him as his false glamor dissolves beneath him. Harry moves on, encountering young runaway girls, health food swindlers, and an Indian who cures his arthritis in return for an electric blender. He buys Tonto a Scotch in a Las Vegas casino and spends the night in jail for pissing into a potted fern in the lobby. In the end, Tonto dies and Harry is offered a chance to move in with a well-preserved widow in Miami. Life goes on; Harry finds a new cat.

But triteness is not the worst of Harry and Tonto's faults. Any film that aims at poignancy will spatter itself with bathos unless it is directed by a very skillful man indeed, and Mazursky is too heavy-handed to make it work. Harry and Tonto exploits old people and their problems for the sake of cheap tears and an occasional laugh. Too much of the movie's laughter is directed at Harry instead of against his tormentors. Harry seems ridiculous for urinating in the potted plant, not the police who arrest him. The only symptom of old age Harry displays is incontinence, and, typically, it's played for giggles.

HARRY'S MENTAL and physical fitness is the chief weakness of the film. Art Carney makes Harry lively, sharp-tongued, and open-minded; his performance is excellent but he does not portray an old man, only a young man who happens to be 75 years old. Harry and Tonto thus trivializes the problems of the elderly--the worst of them seems to be incontinence--and makes answers look too easy. If only our old people didn't have to face things like chronic illness and mental deterioration, the film seems to say, they could lead happy, useful lives. At the end of the movie, Harry seems superior to almost all those he's left behind. He gains inner serenity from one round of purgative family visits and a move from New York to Miami Beach. But none of this is at all convincing since he has had to face none of the hardest privations of old age, only a few of its petty annoyances.

But Harry and Tonto, even if it amounts to no more than evasive slush in the end, makes a few fine and accurate observations along the way. When Harry meets the other elderly tenants in his building they talk about the TV shows of the night before, since they all watch TV and usually choose the same shows. Harry's visit to a childhood sweetheart grown senile (Geraldine Page) is one of the few episodes in which the film touches base with reality. Joshua Mostel, as one of Harry's grandchildren, plays the role of a deadpan mixed-up kid who takes a vow of silence with icy, despicable correctness. And Art Carney, though not as funny as he was in The Honeymooners, salvages some dignity for the film even when it seems most intent to fall on its face.

Today's generation of "senior citizens" is the first to have gone to the movies all their lives. For the most part, they remain loyal to the movies in a way that their children and grandchildren--contaminated by TV--do not. The last few years, with the exception of an occasional revival like The Sound of Music, have brought few movies this audience could identify with or unreservedly enjoy. It is too bad that now that they've finally been singled out for attention as both subject cand audience, the effort is as patronizing and insubstantial as Harry and Tonto.