By the closing scenes of 1970's FIVE EASY PIECES, Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson)has perhaps decided to banish himself to permanent anonymity, to an existence of complete denial (or maybe embracing?) of true self, whatever that may be. When we meet first meet him, he seems to be a average joe as he works in oil fields by day and goes bowling in the evenings. His friends and his waitress girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black) call him "Bobby" and they idle the hours the way many lower middle class folks do, sitting in a trailer park, chugging beer, and watching TV.
Dupea is also a bit of a prick. His mercurial behavior baffles during the first half of director/co-writer (along with Carole Eastman) Bob Rafelson's great film. Why does he treat Rayette so poorly, lying to and cheating on her at every opportunity? Chalk it up to unchecked machismo? Amorality? One day he goes off on his co-worker and drinking buddy Elton (Billy "Green" Bush) after learning from him that Rayette is pregnant. A condescension, a dismissal of the cheap and pointless life that he sees with Elton and company, spills from Dupea's lips. This is to be his fate? But who is he to judge?
Then one morning while stuck in a freeway traffic jam, Bobby decides to get out of the car, sneer at a few other divers, then jump atop a truck transporting a piano. He plays the keys with violence. Not something like "Heart and Soul", but rather Frédéric Chopin's "Fantasy in F Minor Op. 49" (one of the five "easy" pieces of the title). Who is this man?
The audience learns more about Robert after he visits his sister, Partita (Lois Smith) in Los Angeles. She's playing J.S. Bach's: "Chromatic fantasia and Fugue" in a recording studio (character actor and TV vet Richard Stahl quite hilariously plays her recording engineer). Partita relays that their father has suffered several strokes and that Robert should pay a visit to their old home in Puget Sound in Washington State.
The remainder of FIVE EASY PIECES expands on the hints we've been given with great, contemplative elaboration. We journey to the Dupea homestead where the patriarch remains silent in a wheelchair. The father only stares ahead, though perhaps not so blankly. His eyes portray a steeliness, an acknowledement. This will be be essential to note when Robert opens up to him late in the the film.
And Robert, we find out, is indeed a creative soul, one who has (lost?) great musical ability. His siblings likewise are all musical prodigies; we learned of Partitia's talents earlier, then we meet Robert's violinist brother, Carl Fidelio Dupea (Ralph Waite) who is accompanied by a protege and fiancee, Catherine (Susan Anspach). Robert acts on what he believes are favorable sexual signals from Catherine. For her he will play Chopin's "Prelude Op. 28, No. 4", another "easy" piece. It is seductive to her, but Robert dismisses his playing as a genius might, stating that he played it with proficiency when he was even 8 years of age. Catherine quickly discovers Robert's contempt for himself. She's sufficiently attracted long enough for a tryst, but recognizes little potential for a healthy relationship.
Robert disagrees, trying to convince himself that he cares deeply for Catherine, for his family. Perhaps he really does, or wants to. His affection for his sister is obvious. He even rallies to the defense of Rayette (she eventually crashes the visit) during a gathering after listening to the insufferable rants of a pseudo-intellectual as she belittles the simple waitress. A complete abhorrence of the entire atmosphere in which he grew up envelops him. He hates the environment which made him, so thus, he hates himself. He unsuccessfully tried the working class shtick. He still has contempt for the manor born. We reach the film's final scene.
FIVE EASY PIECES is just brilliance. It illustrates how a fairly straightforward narrative can be engrossing and artful while also being free of pretension. Yet, such a complex character study it is! The very language of film here conveys the information necessary. Rafelson composes many great shots but never to draw attention to themselves. Laszlo Kovacs's photography is expansive and intimate by turns, appropriate to the mood of the scene. Bobby surveys the oil field with weary eyes and loneliness, the vastness of the field overwhelming in its banality. Robert stares into the ancient furniture of his childhood home with similiar loneliness, and claustrophobia. Rafelson and Kovacs create visuals that could almost play silently in their expressiveness. Many shots run long enough to suggest restlessness and frustration.
But the dialogue is a charm throughout FIVE EASY PIECES. Most famous is the diner scene, where Dupea has stopped on his trip home. Rayette and 2 hitchhikers (one who never stops chattering) accompany him. This scene is worth quoting:
Bobby: I'd like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.
This scene has found its place in Cinema History, not for being interal to the story, but because it certifies Jack Nicholson's familiar untamed persona. It is almost as patented as that image of his face gaping through an axed door in THE SHINING. Eastman (writing as Adrien Joyce) and Rafelson's dialogue is almost like another classical piece itself. The diner scene plays like music, expertly performed.
But so do the other scenes in FIVE EASY PIECES: Dupea's half-hearted consolations to Rayette (Black describes her soft-hearted and soft-brained character in one of the disc's documentaries: "To play her, I just stopped thinking."), his confrontations with his brother, with Catherine, with just about every other character. There is also the scene to which I already alluded, a surprising and genuine monologue by Robert to his father, the latter who only sits and listens. This scene is somewhat of a "pre-climax", really ellucidating the character of Robert Dupea. By the time we see him surveying his reflection in a service station restroom mirror, we have some idea of him. And of where he's headed.
Criterion's presentation of FIVE EASY PIECES in the BBS set includes in its extras a short interview and feature length commentary with Rafelson, an audio of the director's interview at AFI in the mid 70s, and an excellent doc that summarizes the brief but shining life of the BBS enterprise, complete with summaries of all 7 of their productions.