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.
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.