TOWARDS THE MIDDLE of Cannery Row, Suzy, the film's heroine, goes out to dinner with the town intellectual, Doc. He's a classy guy, even if he does spend a lot of time collecting crustaceans down by the wharf, and he takes her to what she would probably call a "real classy joint." But Suzy's a hooker, albeit a fledgling one, and she's not quite sure how to behave. The maitre d' is wearing black tie, and Doc orders crab, a difficult food under any circumstances. Fighting panic. Suzy falls back on an age-old rule: when in doubt, move slowly. Striking a pose of quiet mystery, she eyes her partner and carefully mimics his crab-eating etiquette, staying at least two bites behind him. When dinner is over, she hasn't engaged him in brilliant conversation, but at least her poise is intact.
Somewhere along the line, David S. Ward, who wrote and directed this extremely silly movie, must have learned the same rule. Cannery Row looks very pretty, but it moves about as fast as continental drift, and it's a lot less fun to watch. When, after two excruciatingly boring hours, it finally grinds to its inevitable happy ending, we too are left feeling stupid but unruffled. A movie has drifted in and out of our heads, and all that's left is a vague taste of crab.
BASED ON TWO NOVELS by John Steinbeck (Cannery Row and its sequel, Sweet Thursday), Cannery Row takes place in a small, depressed town somewhere on the California coast. We're never told the date, but by the clothes and the cars, we can place it somewhere in the range of fifty years ago. The canneries have all closed down, and the row's biggest industry is the Bear Flag Restaurant, a jolly whorehouse run, of course, by a tough little madame with a heart of gold. It is to the Bear Flag that spunky Suzy (Debra Winger) comes looking for a job after fruit-picking her way across the country. After all, she says, "all you have to do is take your clothes off and lie down." That Suzy is beautiful, and looks more like a Smith graduate than a footloose wanderer who left home at the age of 10 doesn't seem to bother anybody, but never mind. This, it turns out, will be the least of the movie's problems.
For Ward, with a little help from Steinbeck, has peopled the row with an assortment of all-too-familiar oddballs. There's Doc (Nick Nolte), a handsome, lazy scientist: "the seer," a dotty wise-man-of-the-sea type: and Mac and his boys, a bumbling gang of filthy but lovable squatters that Ward milks for all the slapstick he can get.
With such an entertaining array of caricatures--which also includes a flock of giggly, warm-hearted floozies, a gesticulating Mexican grocer, and the large, dull-witted Black man who appears so frequently in Steinbeck's novels--Ward must have figured he could get away with very little plot. Whole scenes are devoted to "local color"--people staring off into the sea, or making idle chitchat. Early on, Doc discourses for a full six minutes about the habits of some octupi he has found in the surf. They look lovely with their frothy tendrils waving delicately in Doc's fish tank, but they don't do much to advance the plot. Then again, the most poignant moment in the whole film takes place when Doc returns to his laboratory to find his equipment smashed after a drunken brawl and the octupi draped, quite dead, about the walls.
WHAT PLOT there is in Cannery Row could have been condensed into an episode of The Waltons. Boy meets girl. Boy fights with girl (sparks flying, naturally). Boy and girl seem to have unresolvable differences (he's academic and kind of out of it; she's earthy but sells her body for cash). Boy and girl kiss on the beach (where the moon is always conveniently full), eat romantic dinner, fight again, finally get back together, wander off into the sunset, future unclear. In between, there's a lot of completely meaningless messing around involving a frog hunt and a surprise party where everyone dresses like characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
There's really not a whole lot that makes sense in Cannery Row. For one thing, no one seems to do any work. And there are some rich people in town, but there's nowhere for them to live. And there's a guy who plays trumpet on the wharf whenever anything romantic happens. And there's also a piano on the wharf (and another in, of all places, Doc's laboratory) so that Mac can liven up spontaneous parties with his honky tonk jazz. And everyone speaks in cliches, and the sky is always purple and torrid like one of those sea scenes from Woolworth's.
Nolie and Winger flounder around in this Disneyesque mess, but there's not much they can do. Nolie consistently underacts, while Winger tries too hard to give Suzy that special something which would enable her to rise above it. John Huston narrates with the wise-and-witty intonation of Father Christmas, and the audience snoozes. Skip this one, folks. It's cheaper to buy the crab.