I’m Not Rappaport

Published December 1, 1996

EPPC Online

I’m Not Rappaport, written and directed by Herb Gardner from his stage play, takes its title from the old vaudeville joke. Comic walks across the stage as it were down a street and encounters straight man with surprise:

“Rappaport! What happened to you?” he says. “You used to be a short, fat man and now you’re a tall, skinny man.”

“I’m not Rappaport,” says the straight man.

“Rappaport,” persists the comic, “how come you used to be a blue-eyed blond with a moustache and now you’re a dark, brown-eyed man with a beard?”

“I’m not Rappaport,” says the straight man.

“Rappaport!” says the comic. “You used to be so well dressed and clean and now you’re dressed in filthy old clothes.”

“I’m not Rappaport,” says the straight man.

“So you changed your name too!” says the comic.

A subtle critic would divine from this that Herb Gardner is the kind of guy who is able to find endless amusement in the whimsical denial of identity, and sure enough, Walter Matthau’s character—whom we only learn at the end of the film is called Nat Moyer and lived an uneventful life as a waiter in Grenwich village—goes through a seemingly endless procession of alternative identities, most of them for the amusement and exasperation of a benchmate in central park, a supposedly 81 year old building superintendent named Midge (Ossie Davis). “I was one person for 80 something years,” he says. “Why not be a hundred for the next five?”

What is supposed to make this frothy stuff sustain a whole drama is its political dimension. The film begins with a scene from the unionization of the ladies garment workers in 1909 at a meeting addressed by the fiery Clara Lemlich (Elina Löwensohn)—a meeting at which the 5 year old Nat sat on his father’s shoulders and watched entranced, holding up his hand with the others to take the Hebrew Oath ( “May this hand wither. . .” ). Ever since, he has been a radical left-wing sympathizer, though most of his struggles on behalf of the people’s cause seem to have been either imaginary or just whimsical gestures—as is the one we are shown at the beginning of the film where he goes into a supermarket and pretends to be from the city’s consumer protection agency. He starts marking down all the prices on the meat as shoppers swarm around him, asking for their discounts, until the management checks him out and chucks him out.

This is actually a perfect representation of New York radicalism. It makes the case, frankly if not well, for what most of the New York left would be too embarrassed to admit: that the leftist idealism represented on the soundtrack here by repeated playings of the Communist “Internationale” has long since become (if, indeed, it was ever anything more than) a sentimental gesture. Gardner finds nobility and a kind of pathetic grandeur in Nat’s futile gestures. The two old men, Nat and Midge, smoke a joint as they wander the park and reminisce about their now defunct love-lives, for which we are meant to love them. Gardner and those who admire him think it natural to celebrate (rather than deplore) their regression to adolescence—which is natural, since gestural politics, like grass and sex, essentially is adolescent.

It is hard to make this grotesque vision of venerable age look admirable, but Gardner has a go at it. When a sanctimonious yuppie called Danforth (Boyd Gaines), a professor of “communications” and chairman of the tenants’ association at the building where Midge works tries to sack him, Nat impersonates a lawyer and tries to scare him with legal mumbo-jumbo about what the union will be able to do to his plans to take the building co-op. At first this seems to work, and the credulous Danforth promises to keep Midge in his job, minding the building’s ancient boiler, for the time being. Then he tries to face down an Hispanic street punk called J.C. (Guillermo Diaz) who is shaking down a lot of the old men in the park. Though he gets beat up, J.C. goes away for once without his money—and without his knife.

There is also a young girl called Lori Douglas (Martha Plimpton) who is following them around the park and sketching them. Turns out that she is a recovering drug addict who still owes her dealer $2000—money that she doesn’t have. The dealer, who wears a deerskin jacket and calls himself Cowboy (Craig T. Nelson) is always complaining about what the degenerate city is coming to. He roughs up Lori and tells her that she had better have the money by tomorrow night or else. She moans that she was just getting her life back together in rehab, discovering her talent for drawing and hoping for a job after training as a commercial artist. Nat and Midge decide to try to help her by pretending to be big-time gangsters from Phoenix, calling themselves Tony “the Cane” Donato and Missouri Jack, who claim the girl as part of their “family.” Of course their imposture is comically inept, and this time it is Midge who is severely beaten—in fact, hospitalized. Moreover, Danforth discovers that Nat’s impersonation of a labor lawyer known as “the cobra” (the cobra will strike) portends no ill to his plans and he sacks Midge without even the severance pay that he was originally promised.

The final denouement involves a convalescent Midge returning to the park bench and (again) not wishing even to speak to Nat. He had not even allowed him to visit him in the hospital. Now, as a peace offering, Nat finally reveals his true identity. Midge, however, who has all his life avoided confrontation with his various white exploiters and had strongly resisted Nat’s attempt to intervene on his behalf with Danforth, has been touched. He first seems to chase away his old companion and then calls him back: “Were you really just a waiter?” he asks. And Nat launches into yet another fantasy of his brief career as a Hollywood mogul as Midge listens complacently.

Meanwhile, J.C. is still at large and still terrorizing old folks in the park; Lori is God-knows where, presumably either dead or beaten up by Cowboy if she has not succeeded (probably only temporarily) in doing a bunk. Danforth and his fellow tenants continue to gentrify their fashionable neighborhoods and to think that everything in the world only matters insofar as it creates feelings in them. But at least Nat and his fellow lefties, sentimentally attached to the vision of Clara Lemlich in 1909, still cling to their dreams of Marx and Lenin, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The ideas go on,” says Nat; “they’re better than the people who had them.” This movie suggests the reverse.

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