3 May 2001 | gbrumburgh
Playwright Beth Henley serves up her own southern-baked black comedy, which simmers instead of boils.
Mississippi-born Beth Henley adapted her Pulitzer-prize winning play to the screen and, for that reason alone, is worth a look-see especially if you haven't seen the theatre production. Directed here by Bruce Beresford, this is quintessential Henley -- her first work to be produced professionally -- offering the story of the three quirky, maladjusted Magrath sisters, who reunite following family misfortune to reflect on their unstable past, present and futures.
Lenny, the eldest sister, is the repressed 'plain Jane' self-imposed into early spinsterhood because of her barren condition. Considering herself damaged goods, she now conducts her life as such, tending to her garden and other non-romantic pursuits. Meg, in the middle, is the listless live wire, the capricious, hard-living beauty who fled the coop early to pursue an aimless career in Hollywood as a singer. The prodigal daughter finally returns, rather reluctantly, when serious trouble brews back home. Babe, the youngest and most susceptible to eccentric behavior, seems to take after their dead, self-destructive mother (a suicide) as she battles with manic depression and resorts to off-the-wall bits of craziness. In jail at the present for critically shooting her husband (she "didn't like his looks"), her bizarre action prompts this filial reunion.
As served up by a triune of powerhouse, Oscar-winning ladies, the star performances should have really cooked. Instead they seems unoriginal and pat. Diane Keaton and Jessica Lange are overtly mannered as the two older sisters Lenny and Meg. Keaton especially, easily the "Sandy Dennis of the 70s and 80s", has her neurotic fireworks on full display. The snorting laughter, the flailing gestures, the quizzical eye-rolling, the stammering speeches. What seemed delightfully offbeat in Woody Allen comedies has become old hat and irksome as the years roll on. Lange, too, has her patented affectations on all four burners. The far-away gaze, the slow, reflective speech patterns, the whimsical, lackadaisical laugh and edgy stance. Both of the actresses have represented themselves much better in other vehicles. Ironically, Sissy Spacek, whose character lends itself to be the most neurotic of the three, comes off more inspired and assured -- a complete departure, by the way, from her typical "Coal Miner's Daughter" money-maker. Good for her.
In support, rangy actor/writer Sam Shepard, Lange's long-time off-camera squeeze, has little to do here but look longingly as Lange's on-camera squeeze. But Tess Harper goes way overboard as the overly-opiniated Chick, the snippy, mullet-haired cousin and next-door neighbor, who stereotypes the vicious down-home chatterbox to the nth degree. While her villainy (which kept jogging my memory of wonderful Madeleine Sherwood's Sister Woman portrayal in "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof") certainly enlivens the action as chief foil to the sisters, they tear down the walls of believability as well.
Despite some well-acted moments from this unarguably talented cast, the overbaked production cannot overcome its stagy origins, striving much too much to push the "black comedy" element down the viewer's throat. One wacky scene has Diane Keaton chasing Tess Harper out of her house and around the backyard with a broom, a bit that comes off just plain ridiculous even though it's meant to be a catalyst for liberating Keaton's Lenny character. I'm sorry, but broom-chasing went out with Marjorie Main's "Ma Kettle" character years ago. This and other eccentric scenes simply come off forced, as if the actors are playing the intention instead of the moment. Lange and Shepard's giddy dancing drunk scene, Spacek's over-sugared lemonade bit, and even Keaton's impromptu birthday cake segment are guilty of this felonious acting charge.
While definitely Tennessee Williams-influenced, the rather thin Henley story and characters pale in comparison. Working much better on stage, this movie remains, however, a curiosity item that somehow ended up on simmer instead of boil, despite the obvious potential.