It's easy to criticize "Stanley & Iris" as resembling a made-for-TV movie about yet another isease/handicap-of-the-week. In fact, the story of an illiterate adult man who goes through the difficult steps of learning to read and write has been done in no less than two earlier TV movies - "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" and "Bluffing It."
But "Stanley & Iris" has two big-screen stars who make it come alive, and while the story is often simplistic and perhaps even naive, Robert DeNiro's gentle underplaying in the central role gives it a solid credibility boost.
Jane Fonda is the former co-worker he asks to help him learn to read and write, and they make for quite a sympathetic blue-collar couple.
The plot unfolds gradually as we see widowed Fonda, desperately missing her late husband while she tries to raise two children on a meager salary from a bakery assembly line. (She also has her sister and brother-in-law living with her in the first half of the film, though they virtually disappear in the second half.)
DeNiro also works in the plant, but when his employer discovers he can't read - inadvertently brought to his attention by Fonda - he's fired. Naturally, Fonda feels some responsibility and tries to help him.
But DeNiro is quite proud and it takes a while for them to get together.
"Stanley & Iris" is very low-key and operates on a romanticized, superficial level in an episodic narrative form. And its ending is so overly simplistic that it borders on parody.
But many of the vignettes are quite memorable, as when DeNiro tries to interpret a map and read street signs, his anguish when he's forced to put his father in a home for the aged, and his sweet romancing of Fonda.
There is also a good supporting cast here, and Fonda is effective in her role. But it's DeNiro who shines with a very affecting performance, as well as a natural chemistry with Fonda.
There won't be any Oscar nominations for "Stanley & Iris," but taken on its own terms, it's quite enjoyable.
"Stanley & Iris" is rated PG-13 for profanity and a sex scene.