When his New York apartment block is demolished, 72 year-old widowed academic Harry Coombs puts his cat Tonto in a basket and decides to visit his three children on a journey to the West Coast.
Paul Mazursky spent several years trying to finance his first solo screenplay and amassed 14 rejections before Fox finally agreed a bargain budget. Realising he couldn't afford too many established stars, Mazursky turned for his lead to Art Carney, who had spent 25 years in television and was best known for playing Ed Norton opposite Jackie Gleason in the sitcom, The Honeymooners. The choice couldn't have been more felicitous, as Carney gave a touching exhibition of suppressed disappointment, calm acceptance and gradual understanding that earned him the Best Actor Oscar in his first major role.
The influence of King Lear, Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D and Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story can be felt throughout the picture. But this is very much a portrait of its times, as Mazursky examines the socio-cultural state of America in its last days of pre-Watergate and Vietnam-defeat innocence. Everyone Harry encounters as he journeys to California is a type. But such is the skill of the writing and the cast that each episode has warmth that never becomes schmaltz and wisdom that's never sanctimonious. Mazursky clearly sought to aim a blow at the intelligentsia by having Harry's retired professor come down from his ivory tower and confront reality on the road. But filial ingratitude, the fragmentation of traditional communities and the pace of modern life were also key themes. Yet, the film retains a gentle satirical wit, with grandson Josh Mostel's vow of silence and Harry's jailhouse meeting of minds with Sam Two Feathers — the Native American healer who fixes his shoulder in return for an electric blender — balancing the more fractious drama of Harry's reunion with Chicago bookselling daughter Shirley and his deeply moving last dance with old flame Jessie in the rest home.
Warm and thought-provoking portrayal of a journey and a man coping with the onset of age and all that might mean.