Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me
1999, R, 80 min. Directed by Tessa Blake.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Feb. 11, 2000
Among his abundant blessings Tom Blake should be most grateful of all for the generous spirit of his daughter, Tessa, who directed this film about the 89-year-old Houston lawyer and his influence on his extended family. To some extent, Tessa Blake's agenda seems to have been the predictable one of resolving conflicted feelings about the old man. Like many rich white guys of his generation, “Blakey”'s career success came at the expense of emotional connection with his family. He's also, as we learn from interviews with his children, the titular secretaries, and one of his wives, a racist, a womanizer, and a bottom line-obsessed skinflint who advises his kids, “Just make money; it's the only recognition you're ever gonna get in life.” But like many of the wry, robust-spirited family members she interviews, Tessa Blake recognizes the willful patriarch's virtues as well as his failings. For a four-time divorcé, he retains surprisingly close ties to his exes, all of whom are still invited to annual family get-togethers. And though he clearly doesn't see much upside to Tessa's filmmaking ambitions he's respectful and accommodating of her work -- even displaying some latent artistic stirrings of his own in sporadic cocktail-hour poetry readings and piano balladeering. By gently coaxing forth the unguarded reflections of this thoughtful but surprisingly unself-aware man, the director seems not only to be working out her own feelings about her dad also but trying to provoke reciprocal responses from him. Even though she fails -- as in the bittersweet final interview scene between father and daughter -- there's something oddly moving about her need to create this tangible record of the effort. My synopsis, I fear, evokes the dreaded specter of Therapy Art devoted to neurotic, crushingly tedious exercises in psychic scab-picking. That's not the case with Blake's relentlessly good-humored, life-affirming film which, among other things, does for wealthy geezers (whose image in the public mind is well-encapsulated by The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns) what Whit Stillman's similarly sweet-natured movies do for their grandchildren. No, rich folks' family dynamics aren't inherently more interesting than ours are, nor are their regrets and thwarted desires more deserving of empathy. But by walking a mile in their Manolo Blahniks, as this film allows us to do, we also recognize that a soul and a River Oaks address aren't mutually exclusive.