1. With Honors (1994)
Like grubbier, smellier manic pixie dream girls, the homeless are often reduced to thematic conveniences: Through them, flawed-but-likeable protagonists learn to live simply, or learn what really matters, or find newfound compassion for their fellow man—or all of the above, as in the Brendan Fraser/Joe Pesci vehicle With Honors. Pesci plays Simon, a wizened homeless man who forms an unlikely friendship with uptight Harvard senior Fraser after he holds the only copy of Fraser’s thesis hostage. Through Pesci, Fraser rethinks his conservative philosophy, abandons the cold-hearted thesis he had written, and realizes that he loves co-star Moira Kelly. (Pesci also turns the tables on Fraser’s snooty professor by eloquently defending the U.S. Constitution during a lecture, which naturally leads to a slow clap from the gathered students.) But Pesci and similar homeless characters are helpful only to a point: After they help others become better people, they complicate the narrative—because these better people would surely never let someone they care about live on the streets. To solve that problem, Pesci develops life-threatening asbestosis. Fraser puts his thesis on hold—graduating with honors be damned!—to care for his ailing friend, whose death seals the lesson about what really matters for everyone in the film.
2. Arrested Development, “Mr. Wendal”
Arrested Development’s “Mr. Wendal”—from the group’s 1992 breakthrough, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In The Life Of…—depicts homelessness not as a serious social problem but as a higher state of consciousness, a transcendent state of being. While we struggle and strain and work up a mighty sweat trying to make ends meet and pay the mortgage, Mr. Wendal enjoys his freedom. (“A free that you and I think is dumb, free to be without the worries of a quick-to-dis society.”) His only worries? “Sickness and occasional harassment by the police” instead of, you know, trying to scrounge up enough food and money not to starve every day. On “Mr. Wendal,” Speech points out, “Mr. Wendal has tried to warn us about our ways but we don’t hear him talk,” elevating the homeless to the level of prophet rather than simply asserting their messy humanity.
3. My Man Godfrey (1936)
Nothing sets up a social dichotomy quite like Depression-era socialites collecting homeless men as objects during a particularly tone-deaf scavenger hunt. This is how the spoiled Bullock sisters (Gail Patrick and Carole Lombard) come to meet down-on-his luck Godfrey (William Powell) in My Man Godfrey. After dressing down said socialites, Powell earns a job as a butler in the Bullocks’ tony but disorganized home. There, he befriends the family’s wisecracking maid, endures Lombard’s ditziness, and survives Patrick’s attempts to sabotage him. Leave it to a down-to-earth forgotten man to figure out how to save the idiotic wealthy from themselves: Powell smoothly rescues the Bullocks from financial ruin, earning a humiliated apology from the snooty Patrick. In the end, Powell reveals himself to be the best kind of homeless man: handsome, witty, intelligent, and secretly not homeless after all. The whole time, Powell was a member of the Boston elite but opted live amongst the homeless, who, as the homeless tend to do, rekindled his spirits with their optimism. Financially re-established, Powell rewards his homeless brethren by—what else?—building a fashionable nightclub at the dump.
4. The Fisher King (1991)
The Fisher King is Terry Gilliam with training wheels: less anarchic and more accessible than most of the director’s films, but still with hints of the gorgeous cinematography and dark whimsy that mark all his work. Still, it has an exceptionally bad case of Magic Homeless Person. Jeff Bridges plays a famous radio shock jock whose aggressive on-air smugness pushes an unstable man to commit mass murder, which implodes Bridges’ career and drives him to alcoholism. When thugs mistake him for a vagrant, beat him, and attempt to set him on fire, he’s rescued by a real vagrant: Robin Williams, as the wacky, floppy-hatted, Holy Grail-seeking de facto king of Manhattan’s homeless community. Bridges hopes to redeem himself and repay Williams’ heroism by repairing Williams’ life, but that involves hanging out with him and enduring colorful advice, mystical stories, and the occasional naked hangout in Central Park. Naturally, the exposure to Williams teaches Bridges how to live, laugh, and love again, but more particularly, it teaches him to loosen up and drop his cynical protective shell. (“Sometimes to find yourself, you have to risk it all,” goes the trailer.) It also brings Bridges into contact with other homeless people, who dispense their own form of therapy—particularly the disabled vet who delivers a cogent analysis of his place in the scheme of things, as a “moral traffic light” whose existence keeps people on the straight-and-narrow, lest they end up begging for change next to him on the street.
5. The Soloist (2009)
Cranky L.A. Times journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself severely hobbled after a bike accident, working for his editor and ex-wife, and in need of a good story. By chance he meets Jaime Foxx’s Nathanial Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic playing violin on the streets. After a little digging, Downey figures out Foxx’s story, which took him from child prodigy to schizophrenia while at Juilliard, and the resulting column is a wild success that walks the line between profile journalism and exploitation of a man with a serious mental illness. Foxx’s problems help Downey take full responsibility of his relationships, and he heals emotionally as his bike-accident injuries heal, with the requisite assurance of friendship by the end.
6. My So-Called Life, “So-Called Angels” (1994)
In the Christmas episode of beloved sensitive-teen TV drama My So-Called Life, Rickie (Wilson Cruz) has been thrown out on the streets by his uncle, setting off much soul-searching in the Chase household. Juliana Hatfield contributes a memorable guest appearance as a guitar-strumming, singing waif who (literally) haunts the music room at the high school. Not only does she assure Angela Chase (Claire Danes) that she’s looking out for Rickie, but she also she helps Angela’s mom (Bess Armstrong) be more empathetic. Turns out Hatfield left home after having a fight with her mom, just like the one Armstrong and Danes have in the episode. “I had a mom, clean sheets, all of that,” Hatfield tells Armstrong. “Another toss of the dice, I could be in her shoes—she could be in mine.” Meaning she could be dead, because Hatfield froze to death after a fight with her mom made her run away. Just as Armstrong has her “That could be my little girl!” epiphany, Hatfield disappears, her work done.
7. The Caveman’s Valentine (2001)
A strong performance from Samuel L. Jackson as the eponymous caveman helps stabilize The Caveman’s Valentine somewhat, but it’s still a staggeringly odd piece: a murder mystery in which the detective is a paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave in a New York park and believes that an evil man who controls the world is beaming poisonous rays into his brain. In spite of his obsession with the enemy he feels is pulling all the strings around him—and his obsession with the dancing angelic moth-seraphs who fill his head, and sometimes fill the screen—Jackson manages to see what no one else can see: that a youth who froze to death in a tree outside Jackson’s park was murdered, and the killer needs to be found. Much of the film involves Jackson lurching around screaming about death rays and angels, and yet he manages to track down the killer, reconcile with his grown-up cop daughter, disguise himself for a while as the celebrity composer he almost was before his brain chemistry malfunctioned, and even launch a torrid affair with Ann Magnuson. He brings a lot of strangely magical gifts to the people around him, but the most unlikely one is justice for a victim no one else cared about.
8. The Saint Of Fort Washington (1993)
Director Tim Hunter and Matt Dillon, who worked together on Tex and Over The Edge early in their careers, reunited for this film, which goes about as far as any movie can in single-mindedly carrying the message that homeless people are just like everyone else—only better and more blameless. Dillon plays a schizophrenic living in a condemned building that gets demolished, displacing him and his disability checks that were mailed there. An urban version of what Judy Davis’ character in Barton Fink would have called “an idiot man-child,” Dillon would be done for if it weren’t for the intervention of Danny Glover, a sanguine master of homelessness who takes him under his wing, shows him the tricks of the lifestyle, and even explains to him why his mental condition is a holy state.
9. Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)
Home Alone had Old Man Marley, the neighbor rumored to have murdered his entire family who turned out to be a kindly man that saved Macaulay Culkin from Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern with a snow shovel. Home Alone 2 follows the “do it the same, but bigger” model for sequels, stranding Culkin in New York, where he runs into Pesci and Stern again as they try to rob a toy store. This time, the creepy older person is a Pigeon Lady in Central Park, played by Brenda Fricker (who won an Academy Award for My Left Foot two years earlier). As if Culkin hadn’t learned his lesson about judging books by their covers from Old Man Marley, it takes a sentimental monologue from Fricker while watching an orchestra from a loft above Carnegie Hall for Culkin to promise that he’s her friend. And in the end, right on cue, Fricker does exactly what Old Man Marley did, saving Culkin with the help of a bucket of birdseed and her trusty pigeon army. At the end, Culkin gives her a Christmas ornament of doves as a sign of their friendship—just what every homeless person needs.
10. Curly Sue (1991)
The last movie directed by John Hughes stars 10-year-old Alisan Porter as an orphaned snookums who has a ’90s-style Paper Moon thing going with Jim Belushi. A homeless con man who has “adopted” the child to spare her the horrors of life in an orphanage, Belushi drags her around Chicago pulling scams like pretending to get hit by a car, in the hope that the driver will them treat them to a free meal. Because “this homeless child made him a better homeless swindler” lacks something as a tagline, their final mark—an intelligent, beautiful, successful divorce lawyer played by Kelly Lynch—takes them home and puts them up in her swank digs. Before long, she realizes that there is a hole in her life that can only be filled by the smell of Belushi’s cigars and frequent close-ups of an over-rehearsed moppet doing sub-Macaulay Culkin shtick. When John Hughes died in 2009, many people seemed to have forgotten that, when he was at the peak of his success a couple of decades earlier, the man was widely regarded as a menace. Any three minutes of Curly Sue will serve as a handy reminder.
11. Life Stinks (1991)
Mel Brooks directed, produced, co-wrote, and starred in Life Stinks, in which he plays a powerful Los Angeles real-estate tycoon who’s blissfully ignorant of the people displaced by his big projects. Goaded into a bet with business rival Jeffrey Tambor, Brooks lives for 30 days among the denizens of a slum he plans to raze. Naturally, he bonds with the people who live there (and falls in love with one of them, Lesley Ann Warren), finding humility and compassion in the process. At the time, Life Stinks was a real change of pace for Brooks, who hadn’t made a non-parody film since The Producers. It worked out so well that his next film was Robin Hood: Men In Tights.
12. A Family For Joe (1990)
By 1990, Robert Mitchum was more or less looking at his formidable career as a film actor in the rearview mirror, but the opportunity to pull a decent paycheck for a schmaltzy TV movie seemingly proved too great a temptation to resist. A Family for Joe featured Mitchum as Joe, a homeless man who is rescued from soup-kitchen dinners and a cardboard domicile by a ragtag bunch of orphans looking for someone to pose as their grandfather and save them from being split up by the court system. When the NBC movie tested through the roof with audiences, the network couldn’t resist treating it as a back-door pilot and expanding it into a weekly series, with Joe’s “grandchildren” played by Mitchum’s future Cape Fear co-star, Juliette Lewis, as well as Ben Savage and David Lascher, still a few years away from their respective breakthrough roles on Boy Meets World and Blossom, respectively. Accepting Mitchum as a gruff but loveable sort wasn’t exactly a stretch, given his pitch-perfect delivery of lines like, “I never liked kids, even when I was one,” but his efforts couldn’t save the series from lasting beyond nine episodes. In fairness, though, the writing was probably on the wall from the beginning: In an interview with the Archive Of American Television, TV writer Phil Rosenthal—who wrote for the show—claimed that NBC president Brandon Tartikoff said of the pilot, “It should be cut up and made into guitar picks.”
13. Bruce Almighty (2003)
Sometimes the magical homeless aren’t just magical; they’re downright miraculous. In Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a newsman who loses his job and promptly sticks his giant chin toward the sky, chiding God for his misfortune. Goaded into action, God—played by Morgan Freeman, natch—hands over his responsibilities to Bruce for a while, and, boy, Bruce learns that being God is hard work (and that it’s godly to love Jennifer Aniston). Throughout the film, a homeless man keeps appearing in Carrey’s way, holding cryptic painted signs. Carrey dismisses the man as a whack job at first, but later, post-transformation, appreciates him as part of the wackiness that makes God’s kingdom so lovable. Good thing, too, because the homeless man turns out to be God himself, a magical tool planted to show Bruce how to “be the miracle.”