She plays Isabel, a nurse from Sweetwater, Texas, who impulsively quits her job because she’s just as impulsively married one of her patients, George (Jim Hutton), a Korean War vet with a serious case of the shakes. Their union is off to a less-than-stellar start; Isabel erupts in tears leaving the church because he’s driving them on their honeymoon in a hearse.
After nonstop fighting and apparently no consummation, they stop on Christmas Eve at the home of his war buddy, Ralph (Anthony Franciosa, “A Face in the Crowd”), who appears to live the suburban family dream they’d like. In reality, Ralph’s homely, wealthy wife (Lois Nettleton, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”) has just moved out on him, taking their son with her. Happy holidays!
So while Ralph mopes, George swills beer and Isabel goes a crying jag, they all learn valuable lessons. C’mon, it’s 1962 — a happy ending is guaranteed for all parties. Yet all parties tackle the work well; taking place largely in Ralph’s living room, “Adjustment” has the feeling of a Broadway play — specifically, a romantic comedy of slamming doors and farcical misunderstandings, but tempered with sobering doses of reality and morality.
And no wonder: It’s based on a play by none other than Tennessee Williams, and the structure is tailor-made for a feature-debuting helmer like George Roy Hill looking to transition from television; his cathode roots aren’t transparent, starting with long scenes uninterrupted by many cuts. It’s clearly a for-hire gig that virtually any competent filmmaker could have done; one doesn’t get the sense that the guy would grow into an Oscar-minted master of comic tone (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “The World According to Garp”).
Given Fonda’s novice status at the time, it’s difficult to tell if Isabel’s naïveté was all on the page. Regardless, she’s as delightful to watch as it is for the other men in the picture to ogle her. While Fonda was fairly new to acting, Hutton wasn’t, and it’s strange to see him not cast as an affable goon, as he was in “Where the Boys Are,” “Bachelor in Paradise” and “The Honeymoon Machine.” In other words, here, he’s a grade-A dick, drowning in misery. He’s good at that, too.
Ever prim and proper, “Adjustment” dances around so-called scandalous subjects without mentioning them by name. Back then, I suppose it wasn’t kosher to say “sex,” “erections,” “whores” or “gay” on the silver screen. However, they could say “sheared beaver.” (Relax, dirty minds — it refers to a fur coat.)
Fonda’s true debut arrived two years prior, in 1960’s collegiate comedy “Tall Story,” where again her character falls too easily, too quickly, too spontaneously in love. This time, it’s with the school’s star basketball player, Ray Blent, a role filled by “Psycho”’s Anthony Perkins — one of those “only in Hollywood” matches, we now know.
As cheerleader June Ryder, Fonda plays it even dumber than she did as Isabel: crashing her bike, exploding chemicals in science class, not realizing she’s in the men’s locker room. But, hey, the movie seems to say, she looks great with pom-poms and a ponytail, no?
She does, but the movie isn’t as winning, ultimately as slight as another early Fonda rom-com, “Sunday in New York.” While it’s amusing to watch June totally tease Ray into a hormonal frenzy, “Tall Story” is less so as it dribbles into its third act, in which Ray flunks an exam and has to take an impromptu test from his professor (Ray Walston, “My Favorite Martian”) before he can play in The Big Game.
Yes, it turns out exactly how you think it will. —Rod Lott