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Weekly Alibi Road to Nowhere

By Heather Iger

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Like a harbinger of the mounting calamitous forces preparing to pummel us into the 21st century, David Lynch, the leader of America's cinematic avant-garde, has done something unthinkable. The creator of macabre masterpieces Blue Velvet, "Twin Peaks" and Lost Highway has made his weirdest maneuver yet. Mr. Lynch has fashioned The Straight Story, a G-rated (that's right, G) Walt Disney film production. Truly, the sky must be falling.

The Straight Story is all that the title implies -- a straightforward narrative and true story about an elderly Iowa countryman, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth). Alvin has just learned that his long-estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) in Wisconsin has had a stroke. With bad hips and bat vision, Alvin's got a formidable problem. He'd like to see his brother, but he can't drive. But this rusty old codger is unswayed. He saddles a trailer onto his '66 John Deere lawnmower and sets off under the smog-free skies of the American heartland.

The 300-mile journey to his ailing brother's home on Mt. Zion (in this embarrassingly obvious biblical parable) is wrought with quirky chance encounters. Reeking of sentimentality, the wizened old timer espouses bits of spiritual wisdom and comfort to everyone he meets. A pregnant teenage runaway is encouraged to return home, youngsters are schooled about enjoying their youth, and feuding brothers are shamed into camaraderie.

If not for the extraordinarily convincing acting performances, all would be lost to the contrived. Sissy Spacek is remarkable as Rosie, Alvin's slow-witted, speech-impaired daughter. Thankfully, her character is given some real dimension, and Spacek pulls it off exceptionally without being exploitative. But it is a staggering performance by the weepy-eyed Farnsworth that is the true savior of the film. Not for a moment do we doubt that he's been corroding away in simple eccentricity with the rest of rural Iowa.

The Straight Story is a long, slow road movie. The tedium is only made digestible by the film's seamless craftsmanship. There's an ingenious use of sound, music, and the visual to create suspense where there isn't any. An inspired folk score by veteran composer Angelo Badalamenti proves that there's more than one man on this crew who can change the color of his spots. Cameraman Freddie Francis (who worked with Lynch on Elephant Man and Dune) continues to astound with the organic-looking naturalness of his filmed images. The technical precision of the Lynch team truly drives the film's premise home, allowing a closer inspection of the richness of the ordinary.

It's a kinder, gentler David Lynch on display in The Straight Story, and those expecting the glitzy glum of the bygone will be sorely disappointed. Sure, that old psychotic charm twinkles momentarily as a reluctant road killer announces the slaughter of her 13th deer or when Alvin's lawnmower races out of control and comes to a grinding halt before a brilliantly burning house. There's also that Lynch-like sprinkle of cynicism here and there. A fat henna-headed neighbor who munches pink marshmallows while wallowing in the sun asks, "What's the number to call for 911?" With Fargo-esque charm and vacuousness a number of young women refer to Wisconsin as "a real party state." And the blatant Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dumbness of twin brother auto mechanics provides yet another glimmer of dubious sincerity toward all of this heartwarming good feeling. But these offbeat moments are of little solace to the seasoned fan and seem out of place amid these gentle, quaint surroundings.

For the real fanatics out there, be consoled. The Straight Story is bubbling with potential symbols for your misinterpretation. For starters, the traditional conductors of malevolent spirits -- fire, rain and lightning -- are omnipresent. The significance of killing the 13th deer must not be overlooked either. (Don't tell me you have forgotten the importance of this ominous number in Eraserhead!) And was the placement of a bundle of bound sticks before the old coot's tent merely coincidental, or a startling reference to our favorite witch of the woods?

Believe what you like, my pretties. The bottom line is that when George Jones lost his driver's license, he drove his lawnmower hundreds of miles to get a drink of whiskey. And, while that may not be a cute story, it sure as hell sounds more entertaining than this one.

So why did Lynch do it? Presumably to avoid stylistic pigeonholing -- to escape the artistic trappings of auteurship. Maybe he wanted to be like Picasso, able to work in all genres. Or maybe he did it for the money. No matter how you slice it, it's just David Lynch painting an enchanting Monet landscape for the cover of an inspirational Hallmark card. Strongly recommended for grandparents -- but not for their grandchildren -- this woefully wholesome tale is Lynch's creepiest work yet.


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