Edward SCISSORHANDS A wacky fusion of gothic fairy tale and suburban banality

December 14, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Edward Scissorhands'

Starring Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder.

Directed by Tim Burton.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2 If you have scissors for hands, shoelaces are out. So is typing, the piano, and, presumably, foreplay. On the other hand, there's money to be made in topiary, hair and pet grooming.

It's exactly this kind of attention to practical detail, at the expense of larger issues, that gives Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands" its Zeitgeist of craziness. Is it ever wacky, or what?

Burton wastes almost no time in the setup, passing swiftly over the biology and origins of a young man with a maze of shears for digits, and gets swiftly and earnestly toward the practical aspects of the blade lifestyle.

In one sense, the movie sports what might be called a faux-naturalism that exalts the cliche and values banality of expression and conventionality of emotion above all else. For example, nobody makes a big deal out of Edward's snippers; it's like a minor eccentricity, as if the people who see him are saying, "Hey, that guy has scissors for hands, doesn't he? Wow. Incidentally, who won the game last night?"

Yet at the same time, the movie is so far from formal naturalism as to be in a different solar system altogether. It might be described as a fusion of fabulist styles: The gothic fairy tale and the drop-dead hip version of suburbia so beloved of modern filmmakers like David Lynch, David Byrne and Jonathan Demme. The "trick" of the flick is to take a character from the first -- the weird, frightening, frightened, dreamy leather boy with garden shears at the end of his arms -- and plunge him into the second, a generically bland, detailess suburb where the houses and the people are color-coded like Monopoly properties.

Edward is played by Johnny Depp, behind a Charles Addams complexion, heavy-metal wardrobe and hands by American Surgical Supply. He's living in an abandoned hilltop mansion out of Horror Inc. which perches above Your Suburb, U.S.A. An almost pathetic character, winsome and lyrical despite the weaponry, he instantly engages the sympathy of his discoverer, the Avon Lady, played with sweet earnestness and lack of condescension by Dianne Wiest, who is the best thing in this movie exactly as she's the best thing in every movie she's in.

His background, revealed gradually, is uninteresting. He was originally a cookie-cutting robot as created by an aged inventor who, Gepetto-like, decided to convert him to real boy. The old boy got as far as the wrists before expiring, and the movie is generous enough to provide hammy old Vincent Price with one more eyeball-bulging death scene to cap off a career rich in them.

Wiest quickly removes the blade boy to her boxy '50s rancher and inserts him, without much explanation, in the family life. Both Dad and son Kevin (Alan Arkin and Robert Oliveri) accept without a hitch. The gossipy neighbors think he's neat. When the family's teen daughter comes home from a camping trip, however, complications ensue.

Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea on Burton's part to have Winona Ryder play the sweet, nice, decent Kim Boggs. In Ryder's other movie of the weekend, "Mermaids," she provides a special poignant kookiness and comic timing; here, she's strictly from Dullsville, a conventionally imagined blond cheerleader. She lacks edge and definition. And the blond wig is no help; you sit there, mentally subtracting it from her appearance.

Depp is very good, however. Using Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man" shuffle and eyes blown out equally with horror and wonder, his chalk-faced Edward is like a mime with knives. And Burton gives him real personality, behind the magnificence of his warpage. He has strangely beautiful talents -- he can cut anything into anything, and he's soon got the dull 'burb looking like the Emperor Wang Fu Chow's topiary garden, a majestic collection of gamboling creatures. Hair and dogs he also cuts.

But Burton, as he evinced in "Batman," sees movies more as toys or games than as stories. Somehow this one goes weirdly awry when it develops into little more than a teen love triangle, with Edward and Anthony Michael Hall, in a flavorless performance as a generic bully, competing for Kim's attentions.

I can also understand why Burton wanted a moment of violence in his film; the true fairy tales as collected by both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were screamers. (Don't ask how the Wicked Queen in "Snow White" really died.) So it is appropriate, and perhaps even necessary, that a moment of murder be part of the fable.

But Burton delivers it so banally; it hasn't the operatic scale, the -- sheer grandeur that is so much a part of the fairy tale universe. It's just a prosaic, pointless stabbing, as enacted two hundred times a week in dreary American alleys.

In the end, "Scissorhands" has more in common with one of the objects of its adoration than with other movies in the narrative tradition. It's less a story than a piece of topiary, in which a living thing -- a story with a heart and real people as characters and a central stem of plot -- has been snipped and tricked-up and decked out until it's quite astonishing, perhaps even memorable, but never moving.

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