Rocky Balboa Tries to Tell a Joke

Rocky comes into the pet shop every day and tells a bad joke to Adrian, trying to make her smile. (I am convinced that the reason he would fall for a girl like Adrian – or one of the reasons – is that she doesn’t roll her eyes at his bad jokes. She’s too shy. She’s not sophisticated, and that’s a good thing. She wouldn’t blow him off. She may not laugh openly at his jokes, but she’s a safe harbor, with all of her shyness. She doesn’t make him feel dumb, or like a bum.)

There’s a scene where he comes into the pet shop: it’s maybe the 5th or 6th scene into the movie. It’s nighttime. He comes out of the gym across the street and walks into the shop. (This is the scene where Talia Shire is filmed mainly through the bars of the bird cage.) Rocky is kind of aimless, he has nothing to buy, no errand, nothing even made up. He’s just had a bad day, he lost his locker at the gym, and he has no one to talk to. It’s so amusing because Adrian never responds to Rocky’s conversation and yet you never feel that it’s a one-sided communication. She never speaks but he’s not hitting a blank wall. He’s not being rejected by her, even though sometimes it’s hard work. He likes the work. He likes trying to make this geeky – but to him, beautiful – woman smile.

He walks into the pet shop. She’s busy with the bird cage. He starts talking with her, saying nothing.

“Cold night, huh?” No response.
“You could get pneumonia on a night like this.” No response.
“You need help with that cage?” No response.
“Cold night.” No response.
He glances down at the huge dog in the cage. Says, friendly, “Hey, Butkus, hey.” Nothing from Adrian.
“There’s a good game down at the Spectrum tonight.” No response.

Rocky is not looking at Adrian, just messing around with that ball he always carries in his pocket. Says, “Want to go to a basketball game?” (If there is a more quietly vulnerable moment on film, I want to know what it is. Anyone who has ever asked anyone out will know exactly what he’s going thru in that moment.) She doesn’t respond. Doesn’t even acknowledge that she has just been asked out. Maybe she doesn’t even recognize that that is what has happened since it’s never happened to her before. Shire plays all of this perfectly. She is not a snot, that’s not why she isn’t speaking. She doesn’t speak because she is shy, she has never been paid attention to, and she is “emotionally battered” (those are Stallone’s words for her). She tries to be invisible. She tries to stay out of Paulie’s way. She has been “discarded” (Shire’s words). Rocky somehow intuits all of this, and even though Adrian doesn’t give him the time of day, he somehow gets that she just can’t. Yet.

After the basketball game invitation that isn’t even acknowledged, Rocky then goes to talk to the birds, which is great: it’s an activity that takes the pressure off of Adrian. He’s sensitive to her shyness. Says: “Don’t these birds look like flying candy?” Pokes his finger thru at them and says, making a Rocky kind of joke (ie: bad): “Hey! I’m a giant worm!” But what he is actually doing is making a big show (for Adrian) of being friendly, being nonthreatening, see how safe I am, nothing to be afraid of Adrian! This is what a good lover does when “courting” a woman. He telegraphs to her, in little ways, “You will be safe with me. I’m okay. No need to worry.” (Adrian, though, is filmed as though she is in the cage with those birds. But funnily enough, the symbolism isn’t too heavy-handed. It’s poetic. Sometimes in life there are moments that spontaneously embody something bigger – a theme, a metaphor – a literary conceit. That’s what Adrian in the cage is, for me. It’s a gentle reminder of some of the deeper themes, and how Adrian fits in to the overall story.)

Then Rocky says to Adrian – “You need somebody to walk you home?” She shakes her head no, thru the cage. We now see Rocky’s face in the little mirror behind the counter, so we see the back of Adrian’s head and Rocky’s big mug with the Band-aids on his eyebrow, the bruise on his eyelid – the black hat. He looks like a thug and a half, I tell ya. He doesn’t just want to walk her home. Or even get to first base. He wants something from life. He wants to connect with someone. He wants to talk about his day to someone who gives a shit.

It’s a lonely cold world out there. Mick gave Rocky’s locker today to someone else, and that hurts. It hurts bad. But Rocky can’t say to Mick, “That hurts my feelings.” That’s not in his language. He has no friends. His only “friend” is the loan shark, but he can’t open up to the loan shark. Besides, a statement like, “That hurts my feelings” is something that only a woman would get to hear, for a man like Rocky. This is Rocky’s world. The woman gets to see the soft underbelly, nobody else. This is like Bogart. Bogart never played a guy with a bunch of male friends. He had verbal sparring partners (like Claude Rains in Casablanca) – or he was a caretaker to someone who was less of a man (like drunk sidekick in To Have and Have Not) … but these were not intimate male friendships. The most intimate he got was maybe with Sam, the piano player in Casablanca. That’s a friendship. Sam knows him at his weakest, drunk, and upset, and it’s okay. Sam will not hold it against Rick, or judge him as unmanly. But in general, Bogart is solitary, and only the woman gets to see the vulnerability, the hurt, the anger, whatever. And only the right woman. The floozy at the bar in Casablanca is treated like the whore that she is (in Rick’s POV, remember). But the right woman? She gets the key to the palace. Obviously, women have to work for that damn key.

This is a different sort of reality than some other movies – where the woman is peripheral, and the REAL relationships are between men. Women are only good for one thing, NOT to be trusted, have no business mucking around in the male world.

But the Rocky character, like Bogart’s characters, is the hard outer-shell guy, with the soft inside. Why do you think Rocky’s pets are turtles? You think that’s an accident? He has turtles. Stallone said in one of the interviews on the special features: “Rocky is capable of great violence in the ring, or when certain buttons are pushed – but inside he is very pliable. Very impressionable.”

I believe that this is one of the main reasons why Rocky wouldn’t be interested in floozy women. I could see that a woman like that might mess him up, emotionally. I don’t know how to say it right. Not that Rocky is a weak guy, obviously he’s not. But I think what he is interested in is connection – and being listened to. A space where he gets to be tender, and take care of someone, be taken care of back. If you notice in his scenes with Adrian, he doesn’t ask her about her life, he doesn’t try to draw her out. Maybe he senses that that would be too stressful for her. What he does in those scenes is talk a mile a minute about his own life.

This does a couple of things, but mainly what it does is: It takes the heat off of Adrian. She doesn’t have to try to converse, or respond. He doesn’t let her get a word in edgewise, not because he’s self-involved but because he doesn’t want her to feel uncomfortable. He’ll do anything for her to relax, and so babbling on and on seems to loosen her up (watch her in the ice rink scene: his courtship methods are working). Can you imagine an experienced hardened woman listening to his chatter? She’d not get it. She’d roll her eyes and reach out to unzip his fly. She would think him talking on and on about how he bought the marbles to go in the bottom of the turtle bowl was stupid. He has probably experienced that, and it hurt him very much, so he won’t subject himself to that anymore. I would imagine Rocky goes to prostitutes, just a guess, he seems like a practical enough guy to go that route – and it just seems logical that that would be how he’d handle loneliness, But he’s not looking to be tender with them. He knows what that transaction is. The scene where Rocky and Adrian actually go out, and they walk out of the house together, they’re all awkward, and weird with each other. Stallone says in the commentary, laughing at all of the behavior: “You know – she’s never been on a date before – he’s never really been on a date either.”

Back to the scene in the pet shop, which will then set up what I REALLY need to talk about, which is my “new discovery” from the 2nd scene of the film (when Rocky comes home and talks to his turtles after the fight).

After Rocky says, “You need somebody to walk you home?” and she mutely shakes her head, he says, “If I were you, I’d take a cab home. Every other block there’s a creep around here.” Long pause, you can see him checking in with her – it’s so hysterical, so vulnerable: he’s trying to say, “I’m not a creep!” But he’s got the black eye, the black hat, the fingerless gloves. It’s so funny.

Then finally he gives up and says, “I guess I’ll be going. I’m gonna go home and make up a joke to tell you tomorrow.” (My heart aches in that moment. He’s trying so hard with this desperately shy woman. It’s so nice. He’s so nice. Painful.) No response from Adrian. Then he says, “Good night, Adrian.” He opens the door, we see her thru the bird cage, she looks up and says, “Good night, Rocky.” That’s all she can get out when she is in his presence. But she says it kindly. There’s not a moment where you feel like she’s “Oh for God’s sake, would this guy leave me alone?” That’s a hard balance to achieve, it so easily could have tipped over into Adrian being annoying and annoyed, but it never does. You ache for this poor woman. You want her to let go, be happy. You ache for him. You want them to find one another. It so clearly NEEDS to happen.

It’s set up, through the film, that the way Rocky courts Adrian is to make up jokes and tell them to her. When he complains to Paulie that he’s getting nowhere with Adrian, he says, “Every morning I go in there and I tell a joke. Every night I go in there and tell a joke. Nothing. She just looks at me like I’m a plate of leftovers.”

Finally, here is my “new discovery”:

In the second scene of the film, Rocky comes home after his fight, all beat up. He talks to Cuff and Link, the turtles. He wanders around. He has a beer. Then he has this whole fascinating moment at the mirror. I’m sure Rocky fans all cherish this moment. It’s terrific acting, first of all. Deeply private. There are all these pictures of Rocky (only they’re really pictures from Stallone’s actual childhood) stuck on the mirror. Rocky walks over to the mirror, holding the can of turtle food in his hand. He looks at himself in the mirror (he looks like hell) and starts to talk. This is what he says, in a kind of listless voice:

“There were more moths in the turtle food – more flies … no … There were more flies than moths in the turtle food …” He blunders about. We don’t know what he’s doing. The words don’t seem important. He’s trying to say something, work something out, the order of the words, and then he gets frustrated, tosses the turtle food down and says: “Oh, who the hell cares.”

It is then that he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, the sullen bruised face, and there’s the 3rd grade picture right there, and he looks at it, looks back at himself, then back at the photo. The moment feels like it goes on forever. It’s heart-breaking. A truly private moment. As private as Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?” “mirror moment” (a movie which, incidentally, opened the same week as Rocky.) Bickle’s loneliness has turned him into a psychotic. Loneliness can do that. That’s what that fantasy-horror moment of “You talkin’ to me” is about. Like Eleanor Rigby. All the lonely people. If anyone had ever listened to that guy … would he have turned out like this? If anyone had shown him just a tiny bit of tenderness? Loneliness can mark you forever. Rocky’s isolation is just as acute, but it has not grown malignant, it has not been turned so far inward that it’s sociopathy.

But his long moment of staring at himself in the mirror with total honesty – no illusions – after babbling something about the turtle food, then giving up on that (whatever it was) – and catching sight of his 8-year-old face – is in the same realm. Stallone overplays NOTHING. What I see in his face is: What. The HELL. Has happened to me. Who is that 8 year old boy? I’m 30 years old. I just got paid 40 bucks to get the shit kicked out of me. My only friends are turtles. What the hell has happened. No self-pity. Just awareness of his own aloneness. And how little his life has amounted to.

Next scene: it’s the next morning. Rocky goes to the pet shop. This is our first time meeting Adrian. This is our first time in the movie seeing this side of Rocky. Up until this point, we’ve had only 2 scenes, and while there is a gentleness and a humor to how he talks to his turtles (we like the guy) what we see mainly is a scowling guy, fighting in some dingy club, smoking, blood dripping down the side of his face, no expression, no fire in the belly, nothing. But then we see his face thru the pet shop window, and he’s waving at the little puppies, and giving Adrian (although we can’t see her yet) a brief wave and we’re like: Hmmm. Who IS this guy? We have to re-think him.

He comes into the store. I love (and I mean, LOVE) his first line to Adrian. “How you feelin’ this mornin’? Full’a life?”

Odets couldn’t have written it better.

How anyone could look at cringing Adrian, in her maidenly-aunt sweater, her horn-rimmed glasses, her hair pinned back in the largest barrette ever manufactured – and say, as though expecting a “Yes” for an answer, “Full’a life?” is a mystery. She so does NOT look “full’a life”. Not in the slightest. But that’s the kindness at the heart of this Rocky character, as well as his sensitivity towards her possibilities. She actually is “full’a life” and he’s the only one who sees it, the only one who devotes himself to encouraging it to come out and express itself.

Adrian can barely look at him. She mutters, “I’m doing fine.”

Rocky looks HUGE in that pet shop, like he is sucking up all of the available oxygen just by standing there. He says, jovial, loud, “How’s the turtle food this week?”

Adrian doesn’t look at him. “Fine.”

Suddenly, you see how much he needs her to listen to him, even though she’s not looking at him. Watch how at one point he reaches out and taps her – basically like, “Hey … hey … Adrian … Adrian … listen … listen …”

He says as an opener: “I’m kinda aggravated this week.”

Now, what he WANTS her to say is “Why?” He wants her to say “Why?” because (and this is part of my new discovery) he needs her to set up his bad joke. If she says “Why?” then that would be the “ba-dum” to his “CHING”. It’s a little comedy routine he’s trying to start here. He needs a partner.

But Adrian does not say “Why?” because that would mean the conversation would have to be prolonged and she can’t bear it. Instead, she says, “I’m sorry.”

Dead stop.

Then Rocky says, “Don’t you want to hear about it?” (Still trying to get her to participate in his joke.)

Adrian’s boss pushes by and says something like, “I’ll tell you somebody who doesn’t want to hear about it.”

But Rocky, no guile, no malice, says to the boss as she passes, “Hey, Loretta, how are you …”, He then reaches out and pokes Adrian in the back. Pokes her in the back! He is determined! “Adrian, don’t you want to hear about it?” He will tell her this joke, dammit, even though her BACK is to him. But she needs to say the right line!

He launches in, “The turtle food last week had more moths in it than flies. And the moths get stuck in the turtle’s throats and they cough – and I have to then smack them on the back. And they get what? What do they get?”

Cut back to Adrian, who is now having a harder time resisting the onslaught.

Rocky says, grinning, pushing her, “Come on … they get what?”

She shakes her head, and he says, “Shell shock. They get shell shock.” Proud.

Despite herself, Adrian smiles. She tries to hide it, but she can’t.

And so this is a good day for Rocky. A very good day.

And NOW I can see that what he was DOING in front of the mirror was practicing the joke, and trying to put the words in the right order so that the punchline would land. I never put that together before, I thought he was just talking to himself, maybe carrying on a conversation with himself and the turtles to fill up the empty air, the silence in his house. I never really thought about it. But I just realized yesterday that no: he is practicing his joke.

This makes the triumph of getting her to smile in the next scene even more touching. Because look at the look on his face during his “rehearsal” of the joke. He looks hopeless. He is at the bottom of his life, the bottom of the barrel. He’s 30 years old. He has no life. And here he is, pathetic, trying to make up a joke for this woman who won’t even look at him, barely acknowledges his existence – and oh fuck it, who the hell cares.

But then in the next scene it’s a bright sunshiny morning, and he walks into the pet shop. It’s a brand new day, and boom. He has figured out the right wording that will lead to the punchline, the MOTHS are the problem, not the flies, moths, not flies, he has worked out how he wants to tell it, and even though she can barely look at him, this is what he has committed to do in this moment: Tell her a joke.

And for a second, when Adrian smiles – for just a split second – it seems to Rocky that maybe his life is not nothing.

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8 Responses to Rocky Balboa Tries to Tell a Joke

  1. just1beth says:

    yup. I love you and your obsessions. This is one of the Best.Movies.Ever.
    PS Ceileidh told her buddy Dave all about how we were hooting and hollering about how much you two love this movie, and how Rocky “brings together the generations”. He was all “damn straight!!”
    PS He still stands by the fact that the frolicking in the surf seen was entirely necessary and there is NOTHING wrong with it. I love that kid!!

  2. Josephine says:

    You make me think… I need to see this movie.

    I’ve read something of all your recent Rocky films and lol this one especially shakes a finger at me: Girl, you won’t have lived until you’ve seen for yourself what she keeps scribbling away about.
    Hahaha and I know what site I’d be on immediately after the credits roll.

  3. Hank says:

    I continue to be amazed at your terrific ability to analyze movies and see things I never saw or noticed.

    regards, Hank

  4. Allison says:

    and now the rambling tangle all make sense…

  5. Mark Silverman says:

    I was 12 in ’76. I saw “ROCKY” about three months before it actually was released to theaters. The screening was probably the first big “industry” screening of the picture. When the movie was over I remember walking out of the theater with my dad and realizing that I had just seen the greatest movie I had ever seen in my young 12 year old life. I am 43 now and I still have yet to see a movie that has moved me like the origianl ROCKY has. Watching Rocky struggling to get up in the 14th round as Mick yells for him to “stay down” is the most emotional moment I have EVER seen in a movie. That night with my father is still the single greatest movie going experience of my life.

  6. Bryan says:

    This brought me to tears.

  7. Ben says:

    Love this so much.

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