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Film / Five Easy Pieces

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"I move around a lot, not because I'm looking for anything really, but 'cause I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay."
Robert Dupea

A 1970 drama film that marked Jack Nicholson's transition from promising character actor to outright movie star. One of the early films of the so-called "American new wave" that flourished in the early 1970s, it featured flawed and often unsympathetic characters, idiosyncratic dialogue, and an ending that did not offer any conventional resolution. It follows Robert Dupea (Nicholson), a California oil rig worker living with his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a diner waitress. When his sister Partita (Lois Smith) informs him that their father is ill, he returns to his family's estate to face his father, his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) and his own chaotic past.

Directed and co-written by Bob Rafelson, it also stars Susan Anspach, Billy "Green" Bush, Fannie Flagg, Sally Struthers, Toni Basil (later of "Mickey" fame) and Helena Kallianiotes.

The title is a reference to a well-known introductory piano book, containing "five easy pieces" for beginners. In latter days this film has become something of a Watch It for the Meme example, being best remembered for the iconic scene where Robert does battle with an unhelpful waitress (see Overcomplicated Menu Order below).

This movie provides examples of:

  • All There in the Script: The earlier drafts of the screenplay spelled out some more detail about Robert and his past, suggesting that the death of his mother spurred on his alienation from his family. In the final film, it's obvious that Nicholas Dupea is a widower, but otherwise we don't learn anything about Mrs. Dupea.
  • Ambiguously Gay: The film doesn't come out and say that hitchhikers Palm and Terry are a lesbian couple, but it's easy to interpret them as such.
  • Anti-Hero: Robert is a selfish, emotionally volatile person who has trouble expressing affection and a bit of a mean streak as well.
  • Bespectacled Cutie: Partita wears glasses in some scenes, which with her shy demeanor and somewhat Ingenue-ish personality, gives her this persona.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Dupeas are a remarkable mix of Quirky Household and Dysfunctional Family. They live on a secluded island, basically in their own little music-obsessed world. Apart from Robert's many issues, his father was apparently a forceful personality in his prime, but now he's physically and mentally impaired from a stroke. Robert's sister Tita is carrying on an illicit affair with her father's male nurse. His brother Carl is very arrogant but also extremely emasculated, and his wife Catherine ultimately has a fling with Robert.
  • The Bore: Palm Apodaca, the obnoxious hitchhiker that Robert and Rayette pick up, who will not stop ranting about how everyone and everywhere in the world is filthy, even when she puts the other passengers to sleep.
  • Characterizing Sitting Pose: Rayette has two scenes where she is shown grooming herself while sitting on top of bathroom sinks. And not wide countertop-style sinks either, but basic sink basins jutting from the walls. It shows how she is preoccupied with how her boyfriend Bobby and others see her, but also how she is ignorant of social etiquette that those above her class would know about.
  • Chick Magnet: Robert attracts the affections of Betty and Twinky at the bowling alley, and later his brother's student/lover Catherine.
  • Creator Cameo: Director Bob Rafelson is the man going into the elevator at the recording studio.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Elton's arrest separates him from his young child.
    • Robert is on his way to become one after he abandons Rayette and her unborn child at a gas station in the end.
  • The Ditz: Rayette. She's a sweetheart, and she adores Robert, but she's dumb as a box of rocks.
  • Dramatic Thunder: Just after Robert and Catherine cross paths on the ferry. The sound of rain persists throughout the following scene.
  • Dramedy: At heart it's a drama, and leans heavily into that in the last act, but between Jack Nicholson perfecting his Deadpan Snarker tendencies as Robert, Rayette's ditziness, and Palm's inane babbling, there are some solid laughs along the way.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Robert Eroica Dupea, with his middle name obviously taken from the nickname for Ludwig van Beethoven's third symphony. Also an Ironic Name, since it means "heroic" in Italian, and Robert is one of the most definitive examples of an Antihero in the history of American cinema.
  • Foreshadowing: Robert's working on an oil rig, but there are hints that there's more to his life, like when he sits down and plays the hell out of a piano, or when he insults Elton by calling him a "cracker asshole who lives in a trailer park" (where Robert is also living, and we have no reason to think he is not a cracker as well), or when he refuses to let Rayette play Tammy Wynette because "it's a question of musical integrity".
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: A defining trait of Robert, exemplified in the diner scene, but occasionally it leads to actual physical violence, like when he fights the law enforcement agents who arrest Elton, and goes after Spicer the male nurse when he catches him canoodling with Tita.
  • Hidden Depths: It turns out that Robert the rough-neck oil rig worker is actually a classically-trained pianist from a rich family.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Bobby lays into a frosty intellectual for talking down to Rayette. He belittles her and sleeps around on her but is also protective of her, sometimes.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Palm Apodaca, who occasionally interrupts her nonstop ranting about how filthy the world is by saying "I don't even want to talk about it."
  • In the Style of: The film's director and co-writer, Bob Rafelson, has often spoken of his admiration for Yasujiro Ozu, and this film is probably best viewed as a New Hollywood take on Ozu's style, especially the examination of parent-child themes.
  • Jerkass: Robert is mean to everyone, except Catherine. She calls him out, saying that he can't ask for love if he doesn't have any to give.
  • Leave the Camera Running: The memorable closing shot of the lonely gas station, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest,note  after Robert abandons Rayette.
  • Love Martyr: Poor Rayette, sticking around abrasive Robert, imagining that somehow she'll get him to love her.
  • Manly Tears: Robert breaks down weeping when talking to his father.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: After a few hints that Partita and her father's male nurse (Spicer) might be having a fling behind the family's back, Robert walks in on them in bed together (he seems to be giving her some kind of erotic massage) and immediately tries to attack Spicer. Unfortunately for Robert, the bigger and more muscular Spicer doesn't have too much trouble beating him back down.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Very much averted in the diner scene.
  • No Ending: Robert and Rayette stop at a gas station. He abruptly hitches a ride on a logging truck, abandoning her. The End.
  • Overcomplicated Menu Order: Jack Nicholson's character wants an omelet with wheat toast. The hostile waitress refuses to accommodate him, so he orders his omelet with no potatoes, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, "hold the lettuce, hold the tomato, hold the mayo. And hold the chicken salad."
    Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
    Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.
  • The Proud Elite: The incredibly arrogant, condescending lady philosopher dinner guest, who is rude to Rayette at dinner.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: The film lacks a score, with a handful of Tammy Wynette songs and some classical pieces being the only music.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Catherine gives this to Robert after refusing to run away with him.
    Catherine: You're a strange person, Robert. I mean, what will you come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something - how can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?
    • Robert gives a deeply satisfying one to the bitchy, arrogant woman who insults Rayette at dinner.
  • Scenery Porn: The Dupea estate and the areas around it, the California coast, and the oil fields around Bakersfield. Actually, just about every outdoor wide shot in the movie counts.
  • Significant Name: Robert Eroica Dupea.
  • Slice of Life: There's really no overarching story, as such, but instead a character story of Robert as he tries and fails to deal with his responsibilities to his family and his pregnant girlfriend.
  • The Speechless: Robert's father, rendered so by multiple strokes.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • To Easy Rider. Also a road movie, same production company, several of the same cast members. The main difference is that it's about alienation in mainstream society instead of the alienation of the counterculture.
    • Rafelson's follow-up film The King of Marvin Gardens likewise is about a Black Sheep who reluctantly gets drawn back into his family's drama, only Nicholson's lead character is more like a Distaff Counterpart to Partita, while his brother (played by Bruce Dern) is more reflective of Robert's extroverted side.
  • Stage Dad: Nicholas Dupea basically raised his children from birth to be classical music virtuosos. Carl is a famed violinist and Partita a celebrated pianist. Robert was the one intended to be the pianist, but he rebelled to live a blue collar life.
  • Theme Naming: Music-related names are common in the Dupea family. Bobby and Carl both have middle names taken from Beethoven compositions (Eroica and Fidelio) and their sister is named Partita.
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: To escape from the tension at the Dupea estate, Robert hops on a ferry back to the mainland, goes to a bar, gets drunk, and wakes up the next morning laying on the dock. The nods of familiarity he gets at the bar hint that this was a fairly regular routine for him in the days before he left the island.
  • Wall Bang Her: Robert bangs Betty, played by a young and lovely Sally Struthers of All in the Family fame, off of the wall and every other surface in the room.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The potentially dramatic subplot of Elton getting arrested for a parole violation and leaving Stoney alone with their child is completely forgotten when Robert learns that his father is dying and has to go back to Washington.
  • You Need to Get Laid: Sort of a genteel version of this when Robert calls Samia, the philosophy-spouting dinner guest who insults Rayette, a "pompous celibate".