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Experiencing The Horse Whisperer is like being zapped with a stun gun and forced to watch a 168-minute Sierra Club slide show. Producer-director-actor Robert Redford’s interminable adaptation of Nicholas Evans’ best-selling novel is a grandiose vanity production likely to make even Barbra Streisand and Henry Jaglom wince.
Screenwriters Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese have stripped away the novel’s cheesier contrivances to create a high-minded Hallmark Hall of Fame inspirational drama. Fourteen-year-old Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) has part of her right leg amputated following a snowy horseback-riding accident that claims the life of her best friend. Like her horse Pilgrim, she’s left with crippling physical and emotional wounds. Her mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a spiky, career-driven Manhattan fashion-magazine editor, intuitively feels that the recoveries of Grace and Pilgrim are linked and enlists the help of Tom Booker (Redford), a rancher reputed to have a gift for treating traumatized horses. Abandoning her submissive lawyer-husband Robert (Sam Neill), she drives Grace and the horse to Montana, where Tom manages to heal both victims and pump some warm blood into Annie’s hitherto chilly English heart.
From its opening reels, The Horse Whisperer’s outcome is inevitable. (These days, Hollywood does not green-light big-budget projects in which horses are shot and teenagers succumb to suicidal malaise.) Briskly directed, the film could have been pleasing, albeit predictable, family fare. But stretched to nearly three hours, it is an exercise in duration. After the 10th sunset, the 20th close-up of Pilgrim’s haunted eyes, the 40th helicopter shot, and the umpteenth picturesque panorama, moviegoers may begin worrying that they are going to expire before the movie does.
Redford’s Tom is less a role than a self-deification. At one point, he’s described as someone possessing heavenly gifts who is nevertheless a man. (The speaker is Tom’s sister-in-law, simperingly played by squinty-eyed, newly stout Dianne Wiest. Unless Wiest decides to grow a tail, she has completed her metamorphosis into a mole.) Not only does Tom know everything about animals and nature, he’s a crackerjack psychoanalyst, capable of penetrating the defensive façades of the visiting city slickers and alleviating their anxieties. He’s educated, toohe holds an engineering degree from a Chicago universityand tremblingly sensitive. He was married to a talented cellist who subsequently abandoned him; in private moments, he listens to classical cello recordings and mourns her departure. He confesses to Annie that the only thing he fears is growing old. (Redford himself is rather effectively waging a war with the aging process. Despite his craggy, weather-beaten face, the 60-year-old actor maintains a trim physique, still knows how to flash a killer grin, and sports a full head of hair, tinted the color of leftover carrot juice.)
This insufferably saintly, know-it-all Renaissance cowboy exposes and exorcises the vulnerabilities of the film’s other characters. Scott’s Annie, haggard and reed-thin in her initial scenes, merely has to enter Tom’s purview to blossom into a radiant, doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn. Even dismissal from her Anna Wintour-Tina Brown job fails to ruffle her newfound inner peace. Naturally, she falls for her spiritual regenerator, but the relationship remains unconsummated. In Evans’ novel, the pair become lovers, but in Redford’s bowdlerized, image-conscious screen adaptation, their passion is limited to fervent glances and two forbidden kisses. Apart from a climactic scene in which Robert opens his heart to Annie, Neill has little more to do than a Brooks Brothers dummy. Johansson provides the movie’s strongest moments, quietly projecting Grace’s bitter self-consciousness about her mangled limb and exasperation with her control-freak mother’s ministrations.
One would have to reach back nearly three decades to David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter to find a film as grotesquely overblown as The Horse Whisperer. Redford pads the thin narrative with God’s-eye views of Western landscapes and every homestead clichécattle roundups, brandings, hearty communal suppers. (After two hours, just as I was gaining confidence that we’d been spared the festive country dance, the fiddler started playing.) Redford is so busy fabricating a Spiritual Experiencetwo sequences even feature rainbowsthat he fails to attend to some basic plot points. We’re never offered a clue about the techniques Tom employs to look into the souls of anguished animals and release their pain. I would have gladly sacrificed several dozen scenic vistas and one of those rainbows to learn something about his healing powers.
The Horse Whisperer admirably eschews the violence and vulgarity that infect contemporary star-driven blockbusters, but its absurdly gargantuan scale and humorless self-righteousness left me longing for some profanity and a few explosions. Shortly after learning about Annie and Grace’s mission, Tom cautions, “I don’t want to waste anyone’s time here.” If Redford had adopted a similar policy, he might have made a stirring horse opera to rival The Black Stallion. Instead, he stupefies us with calendar art and narcissism. His overwrought efforts to elevate our spirits backfire, drowning us in kitsch.
In her frothy 1995 directorial debut Party Girl, Daisy von Scherler Mayer (as she was then billed) made a star of Parker Posey, cast as a young, trendy Manhattan social butterfly who unexpectedly finds herself in the grip of a serious passionlibrary science. Presumably, Mayer was enlisted to work the same magic with Jada Pinkett Smith in Woo, but, hampered by a jerry-built screenplay and a frosty leading lady, she fails to deliver.
Recycling a plot line pinched from the Kim Basinger-Bruce Willis bomb Blind Date, screenwriter David C. Johnson has devised a hellish night in Manhattan. Foxy tease Woo (Smith) is informed by her transvestite psychic Celestrial (Girlina) that she’s about to meet the man of her dreams. After consulting her horoscope, she allows a friend to fix her up with staid, self-conscious Tim (Tommy Davidson.) Their meeting initiates a battle of the sexes that is played out in an assortment of settingsan Italian restaurant, an outdoor salsa dance, straight and gay discosbefore resolving in a romantic sunrise rapprochement. Improbably, Tim expresses his love and respect for Woo after she’s treated him so shabbily that she barely deserves his contempt. Johnson’s flat jokes evaporate the moment they are uttered, and his protagonists are so thinly drawn that, by the time they admit their feelings for each other, one has long ceased to care about them.
With her striking face and sleek figure, Smith possesses the raw material for movie stardom, but she’s a stiff, synthetic performer lacking sufficient warmth and spontaneity to make the manipulative Woo sympathetic. (Her notion of expressing both delight and anger is limited to a sharklike baring of her perfect teeth.) Davidson, who appears to have some acting talent, is shortchanged by a nerdy role that forces him to be the butt of Woo’s malicious mood swings. The large, raucous supporting ensemble includes cameos by rapper LL Cool J and Billy Dee Williams, amusingly cast as Tim’s conscience. Murkily photographed, jarringly edited, and dinningly scored with two dozen rap and dance tunes, Woo offers little, formally, to entice the eyes, funnybone, or heart.CP