(1971) Directed by Anthony Harvey; Written by James Goldman; Starring: George C. Scott, Joanne Woodward and Jack Gilford; Available on Netflix Streaming
Rating: *** ½
“If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we'd all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.” – Justin Playfair
Nope, this isn’t about the New York band with the same name (although They Might Be Giants’ founders derived the band’s name from the movie’s title). It’s actually a character study about a man who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. James Goldman’s script (based on his play) owes as much to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote as it does Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, with the ersatz Holmes conducting a wild goose chase through the streets of New York with his trusty (albeit humoring) companion, searching for his arch nemesis, Moriarty.
Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) formerly had a successful career as an attorney until he suffered an unspecified mental breakdown. He’s since adopted the persona of fictional master sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and seems determined to inhabit this new identity as if the one that preceded it never existed. Justin has no memory of his former life. All he knows about Justin, whom he seems to regard as a completely different individual, is through articles and memoirs. He currently resides with his brother Blevins (Lester Rawlins), who wants to have him committed to a mental hospital and take over his assets. Scott approaches Playfair as if he was the real Holmes, steeped in his deductive reasoning and determined to solve an imaginary crime. In one scene Justin discusses Don Quixote, who thought he saw giants instead of windmills. Playfair acknowledges Quixote’s folly, but also found it admirable that Quixote could imagine that the windmills could be giants. Here lies the key to his character. As absurd as it may seem, his assertion that he’s Sherlock Holmes could be valid on its own terms. He suggests that we all might be better off with the freedom to dream. If he’s content with his delusion, everyone else should be as well.
Holmes/Playfair finds his Dr. Watson in the guise of dowdy psychiatrist Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). At first, Watson’s fascination is purely clinical, regarding him as a perfect specimen of mental illness. He’s a classic, once-in-a-generation case study, worthy of her attention as a scientist. Her aim is to help him to get better, and forms a strange bond with this eccentric man, fascinated by his idiosyncrasies. As Playfair points out, however, her own life is a mess. She’s bookish to a fault, socially inept, and drinks herself to sleep. She initially bristles at his summation, but something inside eventually clicks as she sees in him what’s missing in her previously dull life. She feels invigorated to be taken out of her safety zone and engage in a chase, even though it’s probably a fool’s errand. Watson could just as well be Sancho Panza to Playfair’s Don Quixote. Her character progresses from one of clinical detachment, to begrudging indulgence, to acceptance as she decides that she likes her new role better. Their budding relationship is more than professional, if somewhat short of romantic. There’s a strange, off-kilter chemistry going on that suggests a symbiosis between Playfair and Watson, with each fulfilling some aspect that was missing before. While it’s doubtful that Doyle had this sort of relationship in mind with the original characters, it works within the film’s context.
They Might Be Giants is clearly intended to be a piece of entertainment, not a serious examination of mental illness. The screenplay throws around some Freudian psychobabble at the beginning, which doesn’t lend to the veracity of Watson’s character, nor does it provide any useful explanation for Playfair and his eccentric behavior. Of course, this could be the point. Director Harvey and writer Goldman never really expect you to believe that he’s actually Sherlock Holmes, but you’re happy to be taken along for the ride anyway.
The comedy is played too broadly at times (witness the chaotic supermarket scene when Playfair and Watson evade the police). I also wish the filmmakers had fully committed to Playfair’s delusion, giving him a good mystery for Holmes to solve. Instead, the film tends to wander around aimlessly, much like its main characters, depicting one misadventure after another. There was a lot of potential with the two main characters, and Scott and Woodward play nicely off of each other, but in the end it seems like a missed opportunity. If only there had been a challenge worthy of the two performances. The script runs out of juice by the film’s climax, leading up to an ending with no new revelations about Playfair, and seemingly finishing where it started.
Nitpicks aside, They Might Be Giants is well worth your time for George C. Scott’s wonderful, quirky performance alone. At the time of this posting the film has not found its way to DVD, but it is available on Netflix streaming for those who subscribe to the service. It really deserves to be better known. Hopefully more people will discover this hidden, slightly flawed gem.