'Man in the Moon' shines down on worn cinematic path

November 15, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In 1962, Robert Mulligan directed a bittersweet film about a girl coming of age in a small Southern town 30 years earlier. It was called "To Kill a Mockingbird." In 1991, he is back directing a bittersweet film about a girl coming of age in a small Southern town 30 years earlier. It is called "Th man in the Moon ."

And it proves only one thing: that another Southerner, Thomas Wolfe, was right the first time when he insisted "You Can't Go Home Again."

Pehaps it's that the setting has come to seem so stale. How many movies have been set in the agrarian South, that land of pick-ups and two-tone Chevies and good old boys named Bubba or Bo and slow-flowing rivers?

Or perhaps it's that the casting feels somewhat inevitable. Is there a rule somewhere in the contract negotiated by the director's guild that Tess Harper has to play "The Mother" and Sam Waterston has to play "The Father" in every single movie about the South in the '50s?

Or perhaps, finally, it's that the stakes here don't seem particularly high. The movie is one of those "sensitive" jobs about the pain of growing up blah blah blah. It follows young Dani as she falls in puppy-love with the studly boy next door, achieves ......TC delicate relationship with him, and then watches in horror as her prettier big sister takes him from her in about seven seconds.

Yes, it hurts. It hurt when it happened to me and it hurt when it happened to you . . . but somehow, hurt isn't enough if the dramatist can't find something unique and original about the small pain of pre-pubescence. "The Man in the Moon" has no luck at all in moving beyond the generic.

As Dani, Reese Witherspoon is the best thing in the movie; she's exactly at that coltish stage where enthusiasms for dolls and necking seem equally weighted and she's beginning to catch on to the possibility that there's more to life than the pleasant little nest created by mom and dad.

But the movie really twists savagely at the end. In a hunger for a dramatic goose, it arbitrarily conjures up a farm accident, a quick sprig of tragedy to squish some tears from an audience that's beginning to drift off. It works, of course; cheap tricks always do.

But the gambit somehow feels indecent and out of scale with the small-beer hormonal changes that have gone before. It also seems somewhat puritanical in the way that the "Friday the 13th" films did -- have sex at Camp Crystal or in "The Man in the Moon" and the reaper-man comes along and separates you from your body.

'The Man in the Moon'

Starring Sam Waterston and Reese Witherspoon.

Directed by Robert Mulligan.

Released by MGM.

Rated PG-13.

**

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