Film Review – The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez
Before I write about The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss Ernest Borgnine. (In all actuality, it’s not going to be a discussion, but more of a monologue. I’m writing in bed by myself right now.) I adore Ernest Borgnine with a love that is pure and true. I’ve been known to yell at people for talking smack about him, and fervently believe that people who hate Cabbie in Escape From New York are going to burn in hell. I wept when Cabbie died. (Oh yeah, spoiler alert. But you should have already seen that movie at least five times by now.) He was incredibly nasty as Fatso in From Here to Eternity, and unbelievably tender in Marty, a performance for which he won an Academy award. He was always professional, appreciated his fans, and knew he was one lucky SOB. I think my grandpa was more awesome, but Borgnine was a close number 2 in my older-gentlemen-hall-of-fame. When offered the chance to review his last movie, I took it; in fact, I was honored.
Directed by Elia Petridis, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez is the story Rex Page, a.k.a. Ricochet Rex, the Lone Rider of Sound, a former radio DJ who is less of a has-been and more of a never-ran. He’s been shooting for acting fame his whole life, but never even got cast. He’s spending his old age watching the same Western over and over again, lamenting the fact that he auditioned for, but did not get, the lead role. His wife Irma (June Squibb), daughter, and granddaughter humor his recitations of the film’s monologue, but wish that he would engage more with them instead of constantly scheming to achieve his dreams. After a somewhat embarrassing injury, Rex is taken to a nursing home with an all-Latino staff. Not only doesn’t he want to be there, but he views the staff as banditos and is pretty grumpy about the whole thing. However, when nurses Solena (Carla Ortiz) and Alejandro (Arturo del Puerto) discover that Rex once shook the hand of famed singer Vicente Fernandez, he becomes a celebrity amongst the hospital staff, and their starstruck treatment of him soothes his tender ego. An evil doctor (Tony Plana) and nursing home bully (Barry Corbin) conspire to keep the residents and staff under their thumb, and Rex must decide if he has what it takes to be a real hero.
For the most part I found this movie to be sweet and amiable, and I enjoyed watching it, but it’s pretty clichéd and goes exactly where you think it will. The final third is sappy as hell, and the whole thing had a made-for-TV vibe; it’s by no means what anyone would call cinematic. It’s a slight film, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who are going to wish that Borgnine had gone out on something more meaty, but I’m not one of them. I recognize the faults of the film, but you know what? Borgnine brought his all to every part he played, and he brings it here. This movie is super schmaltzy, but it’s a good-hearted schmaltz, and there is plenty of room in the film world for good intentions and competent delivery.
There are a lot of decent performances here. I’ve always liked June Squibb, and it’s good to see her in something more than a bit role. Also, I just like Barry Corbin, and he is perfect as the nasty, card-cheating bully. This is, however, Borgnine’s movie, and he is a perfect grumpy grandpa filled with regret over being a nothing. I am biased; I had my own disgruntled grandpa and maybe what I liked so much about this movie was how it made me think of him. We all come to movies with our own baggage, and I didn’t even try to come to this one with empty hands.
Listen, this movie is not great art, but I spent an enjoyable 99 minutes watching Borgnine be Borgnine, and I’m going to stop qualifying the pleasure this movie gave me. Who else is going to like it? Older people who want to watch something about other older people that isn’t stupid or pandering, Borgnine fans who want to see his last film, families that don’t mind the occasional dirty word used for comedic purposes, and people who are looking for a feel-good movie with decent performances and a gentle spirit. I’m glad Ernest Borgnine got to go out as the star of a film and not in a smaller role. This film is not as good as he was, but really, not many things are.
Final Grade: B-