For her feature-film directing debut actress Meg Ryan has chosen a nearly sure-fire piece of material: William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, a coming-of-age story set in a small town during World War II. It’s a sincere if unremarkable rendering that wisely sticks to the middle of the road. In order to enjoy it I had to try to erase my memories of the 1943 version directed by Clarence Brown, which wasn’t easy…but on its own terms, Ithaca is a creditable piece of work for Ryan as director and costar.

Meg Ryan, Ithaca    Newcomer Alex Neustaedter plays teenage Homer Macauley, who is determined to make good as a messenger for the local Postal Telegraph office. There he falls under the spell of a boozy, philosophical telegraph operator, nicely played by Sam Shepard. Homer’s father (Tom Hanks, seen only briefly) is out of the picture. His older brother (Ryan’s real-life son Jack Quaid) has just shipped out and his younger brother Ulysses is unaware of the fraught emotions that each new telegram brings. The same can’t be said of his mother (Ryan), who like so many of her neighbors fears each knock on the door with news from overseas.

Yes, we’ve seen all of this before both figuratively and literally, but Eric Jendresen’s screenplay is good, the small-town atmosphere is perfect—thanks to great location scouting in Virginia, where the story has been transplanted—and there is thankfully no hint of irony in the performances.

Will Ithaca take the place of the 1943 movie with Mickey Rooney in one of his best performances and an all-star supporting cast? Not likely. It’s a lovely, bittersweet piece of nostalgia with an appealing cast and that’s an achievement any filmmaker should be proud of.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024