On the Nickel (1980)

“Goddamnit, I don’t want this world no more!”

On the Nickel Poster

Synopsis:
A former alcoholic (Donald Moffat) goes searching for his friend (Ralph Waite) in L.A.’s skid row.

Genres:

Review:
Movies about homeless, alcoholic, and/or mentally ill individuals are finicky beasts to get right — and this low-budget indie film (written and directed by Ralph Waite of “The Waltons” fame) is no exception to this tendency. Well-meaning and sincere, but ultimately pedantic and overly sentimentalized, it follows the rather aimless story of a recovering alcoholic (Donald Moffat, giving a fine central performance) who suddenly decides to see what happened to his former drinking buddy (Waite himself), and thus re-encounters the world he left behind. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much urgency behind Moffat’s quest, which comes across as merely an excuse for a would-be cinema verite look at the lives of “winos” in L.A.’s infamous Skid Row. We’re briefly shown a romantic encounter between Waite and his long-time girlfriend, played by Penelope Allen (who knew that down-and-out alcoholics could maintain loving partnerships!?), but we never get to know anything at all about these two as individuals; same goes for Moffat and the friend (Hal Williams) who accompanies him on his Orpheus-like quest.

Meanwhile, the universe inhabited by the film’s characters is a tad too black-and-white to ring true: the policemen who chase them off their downtown camping ground are presented as merely unfeeling brutes, and the doctor who examines Waites in the hospital treats him literally like a clinical specimen (indeed, his lecture to the medical students standing around him is almost laughable). Finally, whatever emergent compassion we’ve grown to feel for the characters disappears by the film’s final incongruous half hour, when events inexplicably turn comedic, with Moffat and his friends ransacking a crematory for the ashes of a friend who has just died; it’s actually quite tasteless. Watch Leaving Las Vegas (1995) instead if you’re in the mood for witnessing the devastation and downward spiral of chronic alcoholism.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Donald Moffat as Sam
    On the Nickel Moffat
  • Good use of downtown L.A. locales
    On the Nickel Settings
  • Tom Waits’ haunting theme song

Must See?
No, though Moffat’s performance makes it worth a look if you stumble upon it. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “On the Nickel (1980)”

  1. Not a must, and in complete agreement with the assessment given.

    First viewing.

    One really does wonder what the point of this whole thing might be.

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