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Nashville Scene The Longest Mile

Serviceable film adaptation of King novel doesn't quite live up to potential

By Noel Murray

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  In 1996, Stephen King released the first volume of The Green Mile, a supernatural prison story serialized in six monthly installments. The tale concerned a retired prison guard, Paul Edgecomb, who reflects on his experiences working Death Row during the Depression. Early in his career, he's particularly haunted by an inmate named John Coffey, an enormous African American man accused of raping and murdering two 9-year-old white girls. Edgecomb begins to doubt Coffey's guilt, especially when he learns that the simple-minded giant can heal people with his touch.

King's series also touched people. It became a huge hit on the strength of its beguiling plot and the pleasures of reading it cliffhanger-style, with the revelations coming a month at a time. And for the first time in a decade, it broke the author's string of uninspired product. The movie version of The Green Mile brings together this left-field hit with two other surprise phenomena of the '90s--a director with one sleeper hit to his name, and a star whose career looked utterly unpromising at the decade's dawn.

Frank Darabont was chosen to write and direct the movie of The Green Mile based on his success bringing another Stephen King prison story to life, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption. Darabont retained the earthy language and ingenious storytelling of King's novella, and he underlined King's theme of hope in desperate circumstances without overselling it. As a result, he brought the novelist's eerie existentialism to life in a way that no one else ever has. And yet, despite multiple Oscar nominations, The Shawshank Redemption didn't become a hit until it showed up on cable and home video, where word of mouth built the film's reputation. It routinely pops up now on many film fans' lists of all-time favorites.

Meanwhile, Tom Hanks, who plays the young Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile, began the decade as the washed-up actor of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Turner & Hooch, and he now ends it with two Best Actor Oscars. As he has done since earning the audience's trust in 1993's Philadelphia, the star of the '90s holds our attention throughout Darabont's film, humanizing the story's more bizarre tangents.

But for whatever reason, this promising combination of source material, director, and actor doesn't amount to much of a phenomenon--although the pressure to deliver can be felt in every scene. Thus far, the biggest complaint from critics and audiences is that at three hours, The Green Mile is anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes too long. This is true, but it's hard to fault Darabont for the overextended final hour. One of the reasons Shawshank worked so well was that it retained so many of King's subplots and throwaway incidents. Surely Darabont felt that by leaving The Green Mile's scope mostly intact, he could pull off the same trick.

For the most part, he has. At the very least, The Green Mile is engaging and even moving. King's episodic plot may snap together too neatly at the end, but the patient exploration of character and the buildup to the story's most powerful moments--a gruesome execution, a daring escape plan--pay off well. Not only that, but the assured performances, the full-bodied storytelling, the elegant lighting design are all pleasant throwbacks to real Hollywood craft.

That The Green Mile never quite makes the transition from good to great is difficult to understand. The fault certainly isn't the actors'. In a large supporting cast, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Jeter, James Cromwell, David Morse, and Doug Hutchison especially distinguish themselves; in fact, the only performances that don't really work are delivered by Patricia Clarkson as the warden's wife and Sam Rockwell as a crazed killer. But these two characters are problematic to begin with--they're sharp edges in a well-rounded picture. Even Michael Clarke Duncan plays the potentially demeaning part of John Coffey commendably, though one hopes he never has to do a character like this again. The role requires him to be a simpleminded, deferential Negro but not a racist caricature--as if that's even possible.

The heavy-handedness of Duncan's role helps to explain what doesn't work about The Green Mile. The allegories and symbolism in the story are too loaded for a filmmaker whose expertise is in the airier moments of daily life. Come on--a hulking black child-man with the gift of healing and the initials J.C., sentenced to die in the Deep South for taking the innocence and the lives of two white girls? That requires someone a little more shameless than Darabont.

There's also an undertone of despair to King's novel that Darabont cannot replicate. A recurring motif in King's work is the old "Monkey's Paw" device--characters get what they want and find their fulfilled desires to be a curse. The film version of The Green Mile may echo the book's chilling final words, but the chill doesn't translate. We remember Coffey's magic, not the losses that follow.

But if The Green Mile, a modest, skillful entertainment, never fulfills its grand intentions, it's in part because Darabont, King, and Hanks have raised our expectations over the past decade. We expect each of them to produce something that will strike a deep chord, not merely play a catchy tune.

Mild at heart

Yes, The Straight Story is G-rated; yes, it's from Walt Disney--and yes, it's directed by David Lynch, the guy who made Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, and Lost Highway. Yet this pastoral fact-based drama is not only unmistakably a Lynch film from its first frame, it's also his best in many years, marked by a newfound warmth and depth of feeling. Above all, it's graced by a beautiful performance by Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight, a septuagenarian Iowa man who set out--by lawn mower--to visit his long-estranged brother hundreds of miles away when the brother suffered a stroke.

Superficially, Lynch would seem an odd choice for the Straight story--no cast-off ears, no mutant babies, just an aging man's leisurely travels through a countryside rippling with wheat and sun. But Alvin Straight's trek across a middle America that's both benignly inhabited and unspoiled taps into the unironic conservatism at the heart of Lynch's work. With their cancerous depiction of sex and sin, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks were a Boy Scout's vision of America in peril: The director's surreal, oddly retro style obscured a very real fear of monsters advancing on Main Street from the inside.

Though anything but perverse, The Straight Story (a telling title) fits surprisingly well with those works. If Lynch's earlier films are about the threat of corruption, the new movie is a testament to the square, corny, and utterly essential values that corruption endangers. Lynch sets the stubborn Straight and his quixotic quest against the backdrop of a vanishing rural tradition; he builds a kind of spatial comedy by juxtaposing Straight's putt-putt pace and dinky vehicle with the bigger, faster machines all around him. But the small but heartfelt kindnesses he encounters--from a suburban family, from a teary-eyed veteran--are linked to a bygone, prewar age of manners and ideals. Mortality is a mournful melody in the background of every scene.

The movie is least successful when it tries hardest to be "Lynchian"--in a stilted, bumptious encounter with two feuding brother mechanics, or a shrill scene involving a motorist who's hit a deer. (The payoff to that scene, though, is very funny, very odd, and very un-Disney-like.) Here, the quirks are allowed to overtake the characters, but what's most winning about this Lynch film is its insistence on the humanity of people who talk, live, and act differently--witness the empathetic handling of Sissy Spacek's startling role as Alvin's emotionally scarred, speech-impaired daughter.

The other hallmarks of Lynch's style--the use of ambient sound to signify place, the attention to textures of land and light, the framing of mundane objects in unfamiliar ways--are deployed as strikingly as ever. But the movie's emotional punch is unexpected. Lynch trains his camera on the creased decency in Richard Farnsworth's salt-map face, which, like the people he encounters, is hugely expressive without showing a lot of outward emotion. That reticence culminates in a last scene that's one of the most moving moments on film this year, an all-but-wordless meeting between two people for whom words are inadequate to the task of feelings. No, The Straight Story isn't what you'd expect from the guy who wrapped Laura Palmer in plastic. But perhaps Lynch understood that the last thing he could do to shock his audience would be to move it. --Jim Ridley

Mouse droppings

There's no better argument for staying home and reading to your kids than the charmless new movie adaptation of Stuart Little. Actually, it's misleading even to call this an adaptation, since it scuttles everything but a couple of vignettes from the first half of E.B. White's delightful tale. White's novel concerns the inquisitive mouse Stuart (voiced on film by Michael J. Fox), the littlest member of the Little family, and his adventures in a giant-sized world--from yachting on the boat pond at Central Park to his lovelorn quest for the beautiful bird Margolo.

The appeal of White's tale isn't limited to its rodent hero: It also touches on a child's sense of scale, adventure, and wonder regarding the adult world. (It's also the ultimate little brother's book, pun intended.) All that has been excised from the script, which reduces Stuart's exploits to a series of witless computer-generated chases involving a pack of cats.

What makes this even more depressing is the subtextual crap screenwriters M. Night Shyamalan and Greg Brooker have shoveled in. Would you believe that the movie parodies interracial-adopting issues? Or that the Littles' pet Snowbell (voice of Nathan Lane) keeps having his masculinity questioned? To make matters worse, when the pets "talk," they look like Conan O'Brien's Bill Clinton cutout with the moving lips.

On one level, it's a shame that a lot of kids will see this coarse, dull-witted dreck and assume that it represents the work of E.B. White. But it's even more shameful that adult filmmakers think the only way to capture a young audience's attention is with toy-commercial selling techniques, bombastic music, and stale gags about aggression, abduction, and flatulence. At least director Rob Minkoff didn't get his hands on Charlotte's Web--he'd have Charlotte the spider chased by farting pigs with cans of Raid. --Jim Ridley

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