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The Pallbearer follows in The Graduate's footsteps

Sometimes a movie will stake its claim to a particular premise or subject so firmly, so definitively, that it must be acknowledged any time another movie ventures into the same territory. For example, if someone films an autobiographical drama about a troubled adolescent boy, rest assured that critics will feel duty-bound to mention "The 400 Blows." If another filmmaker attempts a surrealistic approach to self-referential revelations, his work will be cross-referenced with "8 1/2" (or some other, later Fellini opus). And, of course, if anyone ever again tries to make another death-row drama, he or she will be pelted with comparisons to Dead Man Walking. Just ask the producers of Last Dance.

So it is perhaps inevitable that critics have already likened The Pallbearer to a more illustrious predecessor, another movie about an aimless twentysomething guy who drifts into a sexual relationship with an older woman, then actively seeks the love of someone closer to his own age. Indeed, you wouldn't be far off the mark if you described this new film as The Graduate for the age of diminished expectations.

In fact, one of the minor annoyances in this minor but lightly engaging comedy-drama is that, even though the bright young leading characters are supposedly savvy when it comes to pop culture references, no one thinks to mention The Graduate while sizing up the events that unfold around them. It's a bit like all those vampire movies where no one ever mentions Dracula, or the martial arts melodramas where no one takes a look at Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jackie Chan and says, "Gee. That guy moves like Bruce Lee!"

In The Pallbearer, David Schwimmer occasionally sounds a lot like Dustin Hoffman, particularly in those scenes where his character is nervously contemplating the approach of some real or imagined catastrophe. (For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Hoffman played the title role in The Graduate.) Not being a regular viewer of Friends, the TV show that made Schwimmer famous enough for someone to give him the lead role in a feature film, I cannot say for certain whether this is how the actor normally speaks and behaves. But this, too, is a minor annoyance, one that distracts from a generally adequate and sporadically inspired performance.

Schwimmer plays Tom Thompson, a nebbishy 25-year-old who hasn't done much with his life since earning his degree in architecture. After a year of looking, he still hasn't found a job. And after a quarter-century of living, he's still at home with his impossibly perky mother (Carol Kane) in Brooklyn.

Worse, wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of his. Scott (Michael Vartan) has been married to Cynthia (Toni Collette) just long enough to be feeling a little restless. Brad (Michael Rapaport) is about to marry Lauren (Bitty Schram), a possessive whiner who frets about the lactose content of party dip. Cynthia tries to play matchmaker for Tom, usually with unsatisfying results. But as The Pallbearer begins, Tom's luck appears to change: Cynthia invites him to a party to meet another guest, Julie (Gwyneth Paltrow), a former classmate who was the object of Tom's most serious high school crush.

But then Tom gets a phone call about another former classmate, one who has committed suicide. Unfortunately, Tom can't quite remember the poor fellow, though he is much too polite to admit this to the grieving mother of the deceased. Even more unfortunately, because Tom is so polite -- and because of Tom's inexplicable appearance in her late son's will -- Ruth Abernathy (Barbara Hershey) asks Tom to deliver the eulogy at her son's funeral.

During the opening scenes of The Pallbearer, director Matt Reeves and co-screenwriter Jason Katims flirt with a type of edgy dark humor that one usually doesn't encounter in mainstream romantic comedies. Later, in a scene that has Ruth seeking physical as well as emotional comfort from Tom, the filmmakers try for something even trickier -- and, to a surprising degree, they succeed. The bad news is, many in the audience will not know how to respond to the scene's delicate mixture of awkwardness, despair and sexual arousal, and will simply laugh out loud to cover their uneasiness. To be sure, the scene is funny. But it is also something more: affectingly credible, genuinely poignant. This may be Schwimmer's finest moment in the entire film: he vividly conveys the profoundly mixed emotions of a man who is frankly curious, deeply uncomfortable, seriously compassionate -- and, yes, unabashedly turned on, all at the same time.

Barbara Hershey is every bit as good here and elsewhere in The Pallbearer. This shouldn't be surprising, since, every couple of years or so, Hershey reappears with a new performance to remind us that she is one of our most underrated actresses. The trouble lies with those long periods between the performances, those extended sabbaticals between, say, A World Apart and Shy People and The Public Eye. As Ruth Abernathy, Hershey affects a harsh working-class accent and a brassy, bleached-blond manner that could have seemed impossibly phony, to play a character that might have come off as some kind of sexual predator. Instead, she is totally believable as a flawed but sympathetic individual for whom sex is a drug to ameliorate pain. In this, The Pallbearer actually is preferable to The Graduate, which takes unseemly delight in punishing Mrs. Robinson for the minor offense of wanting to boff a man half her age.

Hershey is so good in her role, and her interplay with Schwimmer is handled so sensitively, that her scenes with him throw the movie off balance. They have more gravitas, and much more at stake, than anything else on-screen. The rest of The Pallbearer is a slight but enjoyable confection about intensely self-aware twentysomethings who know they're on the brink of making decisions with lifelong consequences.

Gwyneth Paltrow is very good as Julie, a disaffected young woman who isn't ready to settle down with anyone, but who isn't totally immune to Tom's charms. It is very much to the film's credit that Julie is given the benefit of her own doubts and allowed to pursue her own path. The filmmakers refuse to blithely dismiss her need to resolve her inner confusion. And if that means we are left without a conventionally happy ending, so be it.

Likewise, it is good that Tom does not completely resolve the conflicts that threaten his relationships with Brad and Scott. Without making a big deal about it, The Pallbearer hints that, sometimes, a major part of growing up is giving up as much as you gain. And one of the things you may have to give up is a friendship with someone that, when you really stop to think about it, you don't really like. Or have outgrown.

The Pallbearer is just good enough to make you wish it were much better.

The Pallbearer.
Directed by Matt Reeves. With David Schwimmer, Gwyneth Paltrow and Barbara Hershey.

Rated PG-13.
94 minutes.

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