Robert De Niro is never more expressive than when he’s playing awkward, inarticulate characters — men who don’t trust words. In Stanley & Iris, he gives a quietly effective performance (his best in a while) as Stanley Cox, an unassuming factory cook in his mid-40s who can neither read nor write. De Niro shows you how private the guy’s pain is. Since Stanley keeps his educational handicap a secret from the world, it’s a major trauma when someone at work asks him to find a bottle of Tylenol. He reacts with waves of tension, twitching his lips in suppressed embarrassment.
For all that, he’s too scared — and proud — to do anything about his dilemma until he meets Iris (Jane Fonda), a pretty, compassionate widow who agrees to teach him to read. That’s when the movie goes down the tubes. Adult illiteracy is an urgent and fascinating subject, but director Martin Ritt — a veteran of such well-meaning Hollywood sudsers as Conrack and Norma Rae — keeps pouring on the inspirational juice. He thinks he’s making the Marty of remedial reading. Stanley & Iris could have been enthralling if it had shown us De Niro’s escalating joy as the written word slowly opened his world. Instead, the movie is shallow and patronizing. Stanley, it turns out, has many hidden talents. He knows every tree by its Latin name, he’s a natural-born inventor, and by the end his newfound reading skill has reaped magical rewards. Would Ritt have considered him a failure if he’d stayed in the kitchen? C-