Directed By: James Bridges
Screenplay By: James Bridges
Based on the novel by John Jay Osborn Jr.
Produced By: Robert C. Thompson, Rodrick Paul
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, John Houseman, Lindsay Wagner, Graham Beckel, James Naughton
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 113 minutes
Review Date: September 24, 2010
The Paper Chase tells a story that will resonate with anyone who has endured the hardships of graduate school and to those who have considered it. While the advancement of intellect is important for a prosperous future in the field of law, at what cost does it come? Are the limitless hours spent gorging on facts and depositions worth the lack of a social life? On the other side of the coin, are you capable of juggling a romantic interest while still attaining the rank of an upper echelon student? James Bridges’ film poses these questions with unique, albeit muddled, answers.
The film opens with a deliberate long take exposing the student’s languid approach to the first day of class. Eager minds, to be sure, but their shuffling feet speak otherwise about the stress inherent in law school. When professor Kingsfield (John Houseman, in an awe-inspiring, Oscar-winning portrayal) arrives to class, the murmur dies to a breathy silence. These young adults can sense Kingsfield’s tyrannical nature, and he makes no bones about it. He not only embarrasses a student in front of the entire lecture hall, but also stoically revels in it. This introduction emotes the sheer brilliance of Houseman’s performance. He is unfaltering in his role, never for an instant letting on that he would give his students a second thought. He is not only the most knowledgeable professor in law, but also the man who wrote the textbooks.
Up for the challenge is the endearing Hart (Timothy Bottoms), who like an unsettled cola, is eager to burst through and end up on top of the class. At first he finds himself in the “lower echelon,” the group of kids who sit in class and watch as the “upper echelon” raise their hands and make names for themselves. His goal, thus, is to surpass the threshold between the two groups. In doing so, he must live an ascetic lifestyle filled only with books and books and books. He even joins the requisite study group filled with archetypes like the know-it-all, the prodigy, the insecure, and a few other stereotypical characters that weaken the story’s impact. At times, his obsession finds him in the library after hours searching through Kingsfield’s forbidden documents, studying the method behind the man’s madness. These scenes work because they infuse seemingly redundant tasks with charming energy, convincing performances, and stunning cinematography helmed by Gordon Willis. His work here, while subdued in comparison to The Godfather, is still weighty in its observance of college life.
Then an arrow by the name of Susan Fields (Lindsay Wagner) hits Hart right in the groin. Though he never falters in his studies, Hart finds himself struggling to dissociate his academic life from his personal one, and it is here that the film finds its most interesting themes. Hart becomes a walking dichotomy, a man unable to shake either facet of his rigid lifestyle. These scenes hit the right notes because Wagner and Bottoms’ performances are genuine in their portrayal of honest, yet confounding love. Things only escalate further when Hart discovers firsthand who Susan’s father is!
The film follows a clear outline, but Bridges directs with an assured dexterity that evokes not only experience, but also homage. The story seems very personal and life-like with its stressfully tense academia motifs and authentic relationships between characters. The film won’t hit the same marks it did in the ’70s when it was released as it’s themes mimic those prevalent in the times, but the themes will nonetheless touch the hearts and minds of viewers for generations. I haven’t even begun to touch on subplots involving mental breakdowns, narcissism, and pranks. I fear that divulging too much would ruin the remarkable experience of watching The Paper Chase.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.