|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 01 July 2003|
"Nuts" is the story of Claudia Draper (Barbra Streisand), a high-priced, upper-class call girl in New York who is being held on a first degree manslaughter charge. Her family want her declared incompetent to stand trial, but when she breaks her lawyer's nose in the middle of a courtroom protesting that she wants her day in court, public defender Aaron Levinsky (Richard Dreyfuss) from legal aid is assigned her case. He has just four days to find out if Claudia is nuts. Over the course of the weekend and the two-day hearing, an ugly backstory is revealed which shows that while Claudia is troubled and angry, she is also a victim.
Adapted by Tom Topor, Darryl Ponicsan & Alvin Sargent from Topor's play, "Nuts" is a courtroom drama that retains most of its stage-play feel, due in part to the lack of a score (Streisand composed roughly thirteen minutes of music for the film) and Martin Ritt's direction. At executive producer Streisand's request, flashbacks were added to make sure that the audience understands the script's subtle subtext. However, these additions -- coupled with Streisand being horribly miscast as a woman almost half her age -- take what could have been a great film and make it merely adequate, at times, painfully underestimating the intelligence of the audience. The structure of the script -- which reveals Claudia's past as an abuse survivor through subtle deduction by Levinsky in the courtroom -- is all but obliterated by the ham-fisted flashbacks, which attempt to tie up the story much too neatly, using pop psychology and histrionics that take the film from drama to melodrama and undermines Topor's story.
Karl Malden and Jean Stapleton turn in stellar performances as Claudia's stepfather and mother, but this film belongs to Dreyfuss and Streisand. Dreyfuss in particular shines in a naturalistic performance of a good guy stuck with a lousy case, who cares more about justice and truth than convenience. Dreyfuss brings a tremendous amount of wit, humanity and charm to the part, and while his courtroom scenes are splendid, it's the quiet scenes when Levinsky is alone with Claudia that best show his range as a performer. The entire cast turn in superb performances. Streisand does an excellent job of capturing the abrasive and hot-tempered Claudia's rage and frustration at being treated like a child. However, every time Claudia, played by the then 45-year-old Streisand, is referred to as a "troubled young girl" or addressed as "young lady," it completely throws the viewer out of the story. In the opening moments of the commentary, Streisand informs the audience how much she loved the play, and had always wanted to play Draper. When she learned that a film was being made with Debra Winger as Claudia, Streisand "somehow got offered the part" when Winger fell out. Had Streisand stuck to producing, and the film had gone into production with Winger, it might have made "Nuts" a better film. Despite being miscast, Streisand turns in an excellent and nuanced dramatic performance, particularly in the first half of the film, where the audience is trying to discover with Levinsky whether or not Claudia is competent to stand trial.
Released as part of the "Barbra Streisand Collection Gift Set," the “Nuts” disc is a merely adequate DVD release as well. The transfer is clean, with few visible flaws or artifacts. Flesh tones are consistent throughout, as are blacks. The color palette of the film tends to be warm and subdued, showing the grime and bleakness of the state mental facility, contrasted with the richness of Claudia's apartment where she does her "business," and the courtroom where the balance of the film takes place. Like the visuals, the audio mix is adequate, but nothing to write home about. The dialogue is crisp and clear, and for the most part easily understood (although I could only understand some of Claudia's lines by turning on the captions, this had more to do with Streisand's delivery than the mix itself). The layering in the end of the first day at court, as each character is shouting to be heard about the other, is particularly good, and certain lines pop out, which increases the dramatic tension quite a bit.
For Barbra fans, the true gem of the disc is the actor/executive producer's feature-length commentary. While she does pause and merely watch the film for long stretches, her insights into the production are interesting, and show how the film was shaped by her own views on childhood, incest, truth, and relationships. However, one wishes that a second commentary with director Ritt and writer Topor were also available. Given the packaging, however, it makes sense that this release is aimed squarely at Streisand's fans, who will no doubt be thrilled to hear her thoughts on the 25-year-old film. In addition to the commentary track, the special features on the disc also contains the ubiquitous theatrical trailer, text-based cast and crew notes, and a gallery of production stills.
While Barbra fans will no doubt delight in "Nuts," the drama is definitely a renter for the rest of us.