Who is Bill Abernathy? This is not an easy question to answer.
So I was in the video store and I saw David Schwimmer's face on the box of "The Pallbearer". I was thinking to myself "pass" (after all, he is the guy with the monkey on the written-by-committee sitcom "Friends"). But then again, this film was developed with assistance by the Sundance Institute, so it was bound to be more than just your typical 'romance-lite'.
Though it relies on the mistaken-identity plot device (used similarly in "While You Were Sleeping", "The Truth About Cats and Dogs", among others), from the opening scenes of the film, it is a romance comedy that's not really a romance comedy-- a woman opens up the garage to find her son dead at the wheel of the idling car and Tom Thomson (David Schwimmer--who does an excellent job of creating the right atmosphere by looking awkward throughout the whole movie) is in a job interview, unable to answer the question "where do you see yourself in five years?", instead dwelling on what he did in the past year. Not long after, Tom receives a call from the woman, Ruth Abernathy (Barbara Hershey), telling him that Bill Abernathy is dead. For the life of him, Tom cannot remember who Bill is, but decides to honour Ruth's request for him to be a pallbearer ("There was crying... what else could I say?"). Tom then meets up with a girl he had a crush on in high school, Julie Demarco (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has just moved back from being away for a while.
And so the stage is set. Pretty soon, Tom is convinced to deliver the eulogy for Bill (who nobody seems to know), and his relationships between both Ruth and Julie deepen. Yes, there are some genuinely comedic moments, such as when Tom and his friends start making up the eulogy and when Tom actually delivers the ambiguous eulogy in the church, but there are deeper themes running in this film.
In a sense, Tom, Ruth, and Julie are all trying to find something. Tom is not only trying to figure out who Bill Abernathy is, but he is also trying to find a vision for his own life. Ruth is trying to figure out why Bill committed suicide and a way to let his memory live on. Julie, having walked away from her own wedding less than two years prior, wants to take a long roadtrip for a year to find herself. In "The Pallbearer", these questions are not adequately answered-- there is no concrete solution provided. No, in the philosophy of "The Pallbearer", it is the journey to find the answers that is more important, and this is how these characters grow.
The relevance of the past for emotional connection is also examined here. Tom learns that it is not necessary for a past history in order to connect with others. At the beginning of the film, Tom dwells on the past as the basis for his emotional connection to others, instead of seeing the possibilities of the future. He is terrified of being forgotten by others, which is partly his motivation for finding out who Bill Abernathy is. As the story develops, he learns the irrelevance of shared experience as a basis for a relationship, and instead focuses on only the future possibilities.
All in all, I was quite surprised by "The Pallbearer"-- the acting, directing and writing were top-notch. Worth a rental.