Norma Jean, Jack, And Me

Even though I was only seven, I remember how sad the world felt when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I couldn’t comprehend why I got to stay home from school that day, or why everyone in my family looked stunned. All I knew is that a great man had died.

People often turn to humor to mask their sadness, and as I was growing up, I kept hearing jokes about how Kennedy was still alive and living on some tropical island. I heard these jokes enough that they have become sort of an Urban Legend. We know it’s not true, but it’s fun to make believe.

What if it were true? What if Kennedy survived the assassination, and ended up on a tropical island with Marilyn Monroe? Sounds like a great episode of “Fantasy Island.” Unfortunately, it’s a full-length movie called “Norma Jean, Jack, and Me.”

Written (with James Trivers) and directed with all of the flair of summer stock by Cyrus Nowrasteh, this low-budget independent film reminded me of a stage play. All of the action takes place in one setting, and the characters do very little but talk. The film is like a chamber piece, and not a very engaging one at that. Instead of feeling like you’re sharing in an intimate moment, you feel trapped.

Kai Lennox plays a drug runner who washes up on an uncharted island. His first vision after surviving a rough night at sea is a middle-aged blonde woman, running screaming down the beach. After burying his briefcase filled with money and cocaine, Robbie (Lennox) is lured to a private home by the smell of steak cooking on the grill.

Hungry and grateful to be alive, Robbie doesn’t comprehend who his hosts are. Jack (Michael Murphy) and Norma (Sally Kirkland) plant all kinds clues, yet none take root. Jack thinks it’s a good idea to kill Robbie and keep their secret, while Norma is thrilled to have company. After an evening of drinks and talk, Robbie finally catches up. Once he realizes who Jack and Norma really are, the stakes are raised.

There’s a wonderful idea buried somewhere in this mediocre movie. The premise is sound, even thought provoking, yet nothing about this movie delivers on that promise. Instead, the writer- director goes for the obvious. Even then, he can’t seem to breathe any life into the script or performances.

You never once feel like you’re watching a character, but rather a performance. Murphy’s voice inflections to sound like Kennedy are painfully apparent, while Kirkland, a fine dramatic actress, goes in and out of character so much you wonder if this was a stage play filmed over several performances. I’m not sure if the hand held cameras were supposed to add energy to the limited set, but the constant dodging and darting becomes annoying after fifteen minutes.

Most annoying of all are the writer’s inability to exploit the premise for all it’s worth. Robbie asks some of the obvious questions, yet if I were given his unique opportunity, I believe I would milk it dry. Imagine, coming across two 20th Century icons, supposedly dead for the past four decades, living a happy, carefree life on a tropical island. You couldn’t shut me up.

The film does manage to make a sly statement on the education of today’s youth. Robbie only knows of Kennedy and Monroe from films that he saw in college. He didn’t go to school there, he just dealt drugs. This revelation about how shallow some of today’s youth are was ripe for irony, yet the writer’s failed to see it.

Shot in 1998, the film already seems dated. When Jack asks about his family, his son John is still alive. Imagine how much more of an impact that scene would have had with Jack learning that John died in a plane crash. But then, that seems to be the chief problem with the film. Missed opportunities.

Technically, the film exposes its modest budget. The lighting is serviceable but not very creative, while the sound mix is flat and uninspired. The music seems totally inappropriate, suggesting another film altogether. Hang around after Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made Of This” during the final credits so you can tell me what the closing music is all about.

“Norma Jean, Jack, and Me” would probably make a decent stage play, where a better director could help the characters find their focus. It’s sad to see the talents of people like Kirkland, always a favorite on the Independent film circuit, and Murphy squandered. Sometimes you feel as if budgetary restraints forced the director to use the first take regardless of its quality.

For a film that should be filled with emotional fireworks, “Norma Jean, Jack, and Me” is all wet. The film does manage to come alive during the third act when Jack decides to come out of hiding in order to run for President again, but by then it’s too late. It is here where you realize what the film might have been. Lost opportunities.

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Michael Murphy, Sally Kirkland and Kai Lennox in a film directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh. Not Rated. 95 Minutes.


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