There must be some potential in the plot because it's a salmagundi of familiar elements. There's the story of the guy who escapes the trap of civilization and its glitter in favor of real life on the natural frontier. "Lonely Are the Brave" is an example. Should I mention "Huckleberry Finn"? Then there's the guy who has won all the possible kudos and is now over the hill, gets drunk, and then "finds himself" again, as in "Rocky II". Or was it "Rocky III"? I forget. Anyway, there are myriad examples floating around in the ether. "Jim Thorpe: All American." There's also the story of a kinda dumb but regular guy who is followed around by a cute, sophisticated lady with her own agenda and who betrays him before realizing her mistake. It was a Frank Capra specialty. "Meet John Doe" will serve.
The elements don't quite come together. Redford is not a hick, although he tries hard. He's an ex champion rodeo rider but we don't learn anything about the skills that are involved. He's been shat upon by Fortuna and now he's reduced to having his picture on boxes of breakfast cereal, boozing it up, and riding around on a Las Vegas stage in a phony cowboy suit that's lit up like a Christmas tree. His few friends -- all of them good old boys like Willie Nelson -- are sympathetic but what can they do except remain loyal? That last bit, riding on stage in an electric suit, is too much for Redford. He waves his hat at the crowd as he deliberately saunters the horse through somebody else's act, out the door, onto the street, and into the wilderness, just him and the ironically named Rising Star.
Jane Fonda, a TV anchor babe, discovers where he is and joins him, hoping for a story, taking notes, filming him secretly. But don't worry. After they've sat around the campfire for a couple of nights and get to know one another, and after they've REALLY, if improbably, gotten to know one another, she realizes that the corrupt city values she represents are revolting.
The director and most of the others involved have dumbed the story down. The evil guys who represent Redford's sponsors, are the kind of people known as "suits." They all wear glasses, most look effete, a few look goofy, and whatever the boss, John Saxon, thinks, is the right thing to think. The good people are all rustics. Not only are they spiritually clean, they'll give you the shirt off their backs.
Redford doesn't help much. He's pretty taciturn -- "Yup" and "Nope" -- and that's okay as far as it goes but when he gets emotional he seems mannered. He's done a lot better than that. Jane Fonda looks pretty good considering her age. When she's wearing a wool cap pulled over her ears, and staring wide-eyed at Redford, she looks like a pretty, thirteen-year old with big teeth. But neither is really convincing. You rarely lose the conviction that you're watching two actors perform before a camera.
I wonder if they had any trouble marketing this. The intended audience is clearly not urbanites or suburbanites, but rather the people who live on small farms or isolated homesteads, and who like to hunt. And who do the producers use to appeal to these good folk? Robert Redford, Environmentalist Number one, and Hanoi Jane. Or -- well, it's possible the producers were aiming lower than that. Maybe aiming for people who never heard of Redford and environmentalism, or Fonda and the Vietnam war. I don't know who they were aiming at but, as for me, it was an easy bullet to dodge.
Willie Nelson has a small part and he's a conundrum. I lost interest in country music years ago, in the era of Slim Whitman and Hank Thompson. "Proud to be a Okie from Muscogee" sealed it. Yet here is Willie Nelson driving a big homemade vehicle that consumes nothing but biofuels. Most of the good old boys were better guitar pickers than they're given credit for but Nelson had a tendency to reach for deep unexpected harmonics. Good man, Willie.