Directed By: Paul Mazursky
Written By: Josh Greenfeld, Paul Mazursky
Produced By: Paul Mazursky
Cast: Art Carney, Herbert Berghof, Phil Bruns, Josh Mostel, and a fabulous ensemble of character actors
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 115 minutes
Review Date: February 18, 2011
Harry and Tonto is a delightful film. Though the story is very simple on the surface, it is one that carries considerable weight and emotional depth thanks to the fabulous cast. The list is extensive, but it all begins with Art Carney (who won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance). His performance is so delicate, real, and nuanced that I immediately fell in love with his character. Not for one moment did I feel I was watching a film, but rather a manifestation of a real man’s memoir onto celluloid. It’s a rare treat that I get to witness such a fun, tender, and rapturous film.
The film begins in a blustery New York City with Harry (Carney) walking his cat Tonto along the sidewalk, groceries and newspaper in hand. When he arrives at his apartment, he finds a notice that the building is to be torn down to make way for a new parking garage. He explains to his cat Tonto, as well as his best friend Jack (Herbert Berghof), that he has absolutely no intention of leaving his home under any circumstance. Lo and behold, government workers bring him down to ground level in his favorite chair just in time to watch his home crumble to the ground.
This event, though tragic, doesn’t bother Harry much. He adheres to an ideology that life is worth living, an experience best viewed with fresh eyes and clear wisdom. On to the next one, some would say. He spends a small amount of time at the home of his son, Burt (Phil Bruns), where he meets the willfully mute Norman (Josh Mostel), a druggie who’s agenda he derives from the countless books that have found their way onto the bookshelf. The family finds him a nuisance, but Harry has a different view. He’s receptive, and though he doesn’t truly understand why Norman does it, he doesn’t allow it to prevent him from loving the boy. In a fabulous scene, Harry asks Norman a series of questions to which he simply nods or shakes his head. Both treat the conversation with respect, but deep inside, both understand the absurdity of the situation. Harry is the kind of man who gets under your skin in a very good way.
It’s small moments like these that make up the majority of the film. Harry’s experiences take him from the East coast all the way to the Pacific Ocean, along the way meeting a slew of characters so interesting that it doesn’t matter that Harry has no motive. The end result doesn’t matter so much as the path, so the old proverbs say, and Harry is the type of man to write one. He fully surrenders to the tides of life, embracing the highs and lows with unabashed earnestness. Art Carney as Harry is as important a character as any, because he shows that life is best lived on its terms, not your own. If you aren’t okay with that, well, then get a cat. At the end of the day, it will always agree with you. It will always listen and understand. It will always accept and be willing to let go. It will live life on life’s terms, just like Harry.
This is one of my favorite films. I implore you, watch.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.