Tell Me a Riddle (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Adjusting to old age.

Eva (Lila Kedrova) is an elderly woman who has been diagnosed with cancer, but her husband David (Melvyn Douglas) does not tell her of the terminal disease and instead takes her on a cross country journey to visit their grandchildren in San Francisco. Eva though begins to feel homesick and wants to return to the place that she is used to only to learn that David sold the home without her knowledge and forged her signature on the papers, which creates a rift between the two just as she enters her final days of life.

This modest low budget film was notable as the first feature film in America to be written, directed, and produced by women. It is based on the 1961 short story by Tillie Olsen and the first feature directed by actress Lee Grant, who felt that after she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1975 that her days on the screen were numbered due to her age and the only way to stay busy in the business was to go behind the camera. She choose this script because it tackled two topics most important to her: feminism and her fear of aging.

For the most part, at least at the beginning, the slow pace works as it helps replicate the elderly lifestyle. The flashbacks showing the couple when they were young, which features a then unknown Peter Coyote as the younger David, help to make the two main characters more multi-dimensional. The different locations that they go to and live-in on their trip, which includes sleeping in their daughter Jeannie’s (Brooke Adams) cramped apartment while she sleeps with her boyfriend across the hall as well as visiting an elderly friend, Mrs. Mays (Lili Valenty), who lives in a place no bigger than a small bedroom and forced to walk-up several flights of stairs just to get to it, helps to give the film an indie vibe.

Unfortunately the second half stagnates as the couple’s journey ends at Jennie’s apartment, which cuts off the visual variety that gave the movie energy during its slow spots. The cross country journey should’ve been played-up much more, like with Harry and Tonto, where the trip becomes the main focus by having the couple travel by car instead of by plane while still keeping the main crux of the story intact.

Douglas gives an impeccable performance and speaks in an authentic Eastern European accent and Adams does quite well in support. However, Kedrova barely says much of anything making her character seem like she’s suffering from a personality disorder and having Douglas do the majority of the talking comes off too much like he’s the ‘narrator’ and it doesn’t help. I also didn’t like the hearing aid cord dangling out of her ear either, which seemed overdone. My grandmother, who lived at the same time this movie was made, wore a hearing aid too, but it was much more inconspicuous and didn’t require any cords.

The film also suffers from an unrelentingly downbeat perspective making old age seem like it’s just one depressing thing after another. I liked the way this same subject matter was approached in Harry and Tonto  where it examined the elderly years from different angles showing how there could be some downsides to it (like with any age), but also some positive ones too. Instead of approaching it as an end-of-life scenario it presented it as a transition that was still full of possibilities and new adventures, which is what I wished this film had been better able to convey.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lee Grant

Studio: Filmways Productions

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

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