On Dec. 4, 2001, when The Guys opened as a staged reading off-off-Broadway in Manhattan, the journalist-turned-playwright Anne Nelson found her moment, and her audience: The wounds were so fresh right then that Ground Zero didn't even have an official visitors' platform.
As a work on stage, performed way back then by noted actors -- first Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray as the leads, followed by Susan Sarandon, Swoosie Kurtz, Marlo Thomas, Anthony LaPaglia, Tim Robbins, Tom Wopat and others -- you can imagine how The Guys offered a sad, compelling 90 minutes of dramatic memorial. Coming to us now on film, almost two years after it happened, it simply doesn't work very well. A more original and complex piece might have touched us this summer and in the years to come. But The Guys is very much of a moment and a sensation that has already begun to change into something else.
In The Guys, Weaver re-creates her stage role as Joan, a native Oklahoman and long-time New Yorker who works as a journalist, wife and mother. Early in her career she covered wars, but now she's content to stay closer to home. The events of Sept. 11 left her feeling like most other New Yorkers: pained, frightened, and struggling for the right words to say exactly how it feels.
She finds these words when she's asked by a friend to help Nick (LaPaglia), a ladder company captain who lost eight men, and who now must write eulogies for their memorial services. He knew each man in a different way, but he doesn't know how to say that. So on an afternoon in Joan's Upper West Side home, Nick talks about his friends, and Joan writes for him the pages that give order to their lives. She also finally begins work on her own personal narrative, freed from writer's block by the time she spends with Nick.
At its best, The Guys reminds us of how hard it can be to articulate the innate things we remember and love about someone, and of how commonplace our lives are until something changes that. "I keep hearing speeches from politicians," Nick says, in the drama's most acerbic line. "Hero this, hero that. I don't even recognize them. All this hero stuff is like some guys in a movie." This is well said and evenhandedly presented by Nelson and director Jim Simpson (Weaver's husband) -- assuming, of course, that it has some veracity, and that it's not just Nelson's wishful thinking about what a fireman might say.
But too often we're told, for example, that when we pass someone (like a fireman) on the street, we only see a mere public silhouette, with the person's layer upon layer of individuality hidden from casual view. Most of the time The Guys has only such turgid banalities to offer, along with its inexorable reminder that death is eternally sad, and that the people who witnessed it on Sept. 11 will never forget.