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and Kurt Voss

For more than two decades, any trip into America’s heartland in the company of David Lynch has warranted hazard pay. It’s weird out there, the director has insisted, with fetish, rape, or murder the inevitable result of living in a small town, eating too much corn, or working as a lumberjack. Lynch’s work has yielded some indelible scenes—no one who saw Eraserhead will ever forget it—but for years his gothic-America vision has been sputtering like, well, like a 1966 John Deere riding mower.

That’s the vehicle that Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) rides toward his destiny in Lynch’s new film, and if his trajectory is predictably odd it’s not remotely kinky. Based on an actual Midwestern hegira, the G-rated The Straight Story finds nothing more ominous in Iowa’s cornfields than a looming grain elevator, some suicidal deer, and Alvin’s own memories of the battles he fought in France 50 years earlier. Yes, Lynch’s new breed of heartland protagonist not only is kind, wise, and well-meaning, but he also saved Private Ryan—or someone just like him—somewhere between Normandy and Berlin.

Undertaken when he was 73, the real Alvin’s 1994 journey was somewhat shorter: from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wis. In scripters John Roach and Mary Sweeney’s telling of the Midwestern odyssey, left behind is Alvin’s daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), who demonstrates her reputation for being “slow” with an odd, halting diction; ahead is Alvin’s estranged brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who has recently suffered a stroke.

That is, the stroke was recent when Alvin set out on his trailer-hauling riding mower. Since Alvin’s trek takes six weeks, however, Lyle’s condition could have changed substantially for either better or worse by the time his brother rolls slowly across the Mississippi into Wisconsin. The real point of the journey, of course, is the people Alvin meets along the way, most of them nice, although a few are frazzled or just plain weird in a Lynchian way. Some help Alvin, and some are helped by him—a perfect illustration of the principle that Iowans (or is it Indians?) call karma (or is it dharma?).

A milk-drinking reformed “mean drunk,” Alvin is a bit cosmic himself. He loves to look at the stars and relishes lightning storms, and he does so to an Angelo Badalamenti score, so you can tell the experiences are profound. Mostly, though, Alvin extols traditional values: thrift, family, individuality, and a self-reliance that borders on dementia. With his vision so far gone that he doesn’t qualify for a driver’s license, and a steadfast refusal to be driven by anyone else, Alvin sees no choice but to proceed on a lawnmower. In an assured if ultimately unsurprising performance, Farnsworth shows us just the kind of guy who would make—and stick by—such a decision.

The Straight Story is modestly charming, but also a little too long and a bit too ordinary. Lynch indulges in a surfeit of traveling montages, and most of Alvin’s encounters with motorists, bicyclists, and hitchhikers pay small dividends. Finally, this seems the sort of tale that can only be justified by introducing the real Alvin Straight (not possible, since he died in 1996). Transforming the story into fiction lessens it, because there’s no broad moral to be drawn from Straight’s undertaking: Being so cussedly independent that you spend six weeks on a several-hundred-mile trip to see a possibly dying relative sounds more like vanity than virtue. But perhaps The Straight Story is just another attempt to put an inspiring spin on the fact that the United States has the worst public transportation system in the industrialized world.

Rock ‘n’ roll is not healthy for children and other living things. That twist on the ’60s axiom is the implicit tagline for writer-directors Allison Anders and Kurt Voss’ second film about the L.A. music scene, Sugar Town. A lot has happened since the duo made the punk-struck Border Radio with Dean Lent in 1987, including Anders’ previous film, Grace of My Heart, which used a Carole King-like character in a failed attempt to create a unified theory of ’60s rock. Anders and Voss’ latest guerrilla-cinema collaboration seems a reaction to Grace of My Heart’s big-budget belly-flop, but also to their dwindling affection for the pop scene. Sugar Town is named for a Nancy Sinatra song, and its boots are made for walking away from the filmmakers’ youthful enthusiasms.

An ensemble piece set among has-beens and never-wases, Sugar Town follows the frustrations of both movie- and music-industry characters. While horror-flick veteran Eva (Rosanna Arquette) fumes that she’s been offered a part playing Christina Ricci’s mother, her husband, Clive (Duran Duran’s John Taylor), discovers that a major label has rejected the demo by his new band, whose membership also includes Nick (Power Station’s Michael Des Barres), Jonesy (Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp), and Burt (producer Larry Klein). Burt, who is also a producer, owes payment for a session to Carl (X’s John Doe), who’s expecting yet another child with his beatifically pregnant wife, Kate (Lucinda Jenney). Burt is about to date Eva’s friend Liz (Ally Sheedy), a high-strung production designer who has just hired ambitious wannabe-singer Gwen (Jade Gordon) as a personal assistant. Then Carl is offered a touring gig with Latina singer Rocio (Lumi Cavazos), who threatens his marriage by flirting openly with him; wealthy businesswoman Jane (Beverly D’Angelo) announces that she’ll back the new band, but only if Nick sleeps with her; and a woman arrives at Clive and Eva’s to drop off surly goth-punk pre-teen Nerve (Vincent Berry), who she claims is Clive’s son.

Sugar Town was written and filmed in less than six months, so quickly that Jenney’s actual pregnancy, which Anders and Voss had written into their script, was still ongoing when she played the part. The filmmakers may have found such spontaneity liberating, but it harmed their project as much as helped it. The movie’s scenario is merely functional, the dialogue insufficiently polished, and the performances of some of the nonprofessional actors problematic. If satirical lines aren’t well-pointed, they should at least be delivered with snap; the film’s halting line readings make the script seem even clumsier than it actually is.

Hip L.A. and show biz are big targets, so Anders and Voss could hardly miss every time they hurl a dart. Sugar Town has some funny observations on such disparate (but somehow linked) phenomena as health-food diets (which require, of course, forgoing sugar) and groupies (one actually played by Hollywood hellspawn Bijou Phillips). Still, the gags are often lame or overly obvious, and even the wide-ranging soundtrack (PJ Harvey, Come, April March, Grace of My Heart veteran J. Mascis), which is heavy on Sub Pop (Saint Etienne, Built to Spill, Quasi, Combustible Edison), doesn’t offer sufficient yuks. “Gravy Stain Girl,” the song written by Larry Klein and Tonio K to be the demo of Clive’s new band, is so genuinely horrible that it’s not very funny.

Still, the movie’s least amusing aspect is its opinion of its female characters. From the ruthless Gwen to the grasping Rocio to the desperately needy Liz, Sugar Town’s career women are a stereotypical mess. Anders (the mother of three) seems to like only one of the film’s women, flawlessly maternal Kate, and hold out some hope only for Eva, who’s childless but anxious to bond with Nerve, her putative stepson. Anders and Voss may know their way around the Sunset Strip, but their notion of a woman’s place is strictly from Mayberry.

There’s only one surprise in Random Hearts, Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of Warren Adler’s 1984 novel about two Washingtonians who discover after a plane crash that their now-dead respective spouses were having an affair: that the first third is actually pretty good. While the tension mounts and Dutch Van Den Broeck (Harrison Ford) and Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas) are still wary of each other, the movie is taut and watchable. Then the aggrieved spouses have an erotic epiphany in a parked car outside National Airport, and everything goes to hell. Alas, at that point there’s almost another 90 minutes to go.

Following by a decade The War of the Roses, this is the second film adapted from one of Adler’s novels about the imagined secret lives of his upscale upper-Northwest former neighbors. (For the record, I know Adler, but haven’t encountered him since he relocated to his spiritual home, Hollywood.) Obviously inspired by the 1982 Air Florida crash in the Potomac River, the book is reportedly subtle compared with scripter’s Kurt Luedtke’s rewrite, which adds higher-stake politics and rote police action: The male lead has become a D.C. internal affairs cop and the female one a New Hampshire congresswoman facing an unlikely electoral challenge. Kay is perhaps the first New Hampshire politician of the postwar era who faces a serious attack from the right, but then perhaps Luedtke has confused New Hampshire with New Jersey.

Somebody involved with Random Hearts has certainly muddled Washington with Chicago, since the movie includes a reference to the city’s “southeast side” and a scene where Dutch and his long-suffering partner (Charles S. Dutton) pursue their subplot nemesis—a crooked cop played by Dennis Haysbert—into an illegal bar that looks like the sort of place that hasn’t existed in D.C. at least since the repeal of Prohibition. Meanwhile, Kay must accept the campaign advice of a smarmy Realpolitiker impersonated by the director himself; it’s essentially the same guy Pollack played in Eyes Wide Shut, only without the orgy.

The orgy, such as it is, takes place between Dutch and Kay, who experience an English Patient-style moment of violent passion after a trip to Florida, where they inspect their spouses’ Miami love nest. After this implausible encounter, Dutch becomes tiresomely blustering and Kay ickily vulnerable. (In one sequence, she watches for Dutch at a fundraiser, nearly swooning when she spots him.) Despite some incongruities, the many shots of local exteriors are generally more credible than those in similar movies set in Washington. Too bad the plot, the characters, and the dialogue were are all flown in from Never Never Land. CP