Trying to find themselves, Lahti and Tilly get lost on the road to Alaska

May 01, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In an irony too subtle to be noticed by all save reviewers desperate for a lead, it turns out that both "K2" and "Leaving Normal" are about buddies going mountain climbing; the only difference is that the men of "K2" climb the outside kind of mountains while the women of "Leaving Normal" climb inside kind of mountains: the mountains of the mind, the mountains of self-doubt, self-loathing, fear and confusion.

If only these two sets of climbers could get together, think what a wonderful world it would be!

But they don't, and, like "K2," "Leaving Normal" is a better idea for a movie than it is a movie. It's been compared to "Thelma & Louise," but it's not nearly as good (and I didn't even like "Thelma & Louise"!), though, to be fair, it was evidently in the pipeline before "T & L" hit big, so it could hardly be called a rip-off.

Curiously, its personality types mirror the personality types in "Thelma & Louise": Christine Lahti, who bears some physical resemblance to Susan Sarandon, plays a put-upon waitress who's had it with the service economy, which more than usually translates to cowboys yelling "Serve us!" while copping a squeeze of her rear end. Meanwhile Meg Tilly, who doesn't look at all like Geena Davis, plays an abused housewife who takes off. The two meet at a bus stop in Normal, Wyo., and off they go, headed for Alaska, where Lahti's character, Darly, has inherited a house from a long forgotten boyfriend.

The movie is to some extent based on the hoariest of conceits, that to travel is to meet a fascinating range of characters. It happens to Paul Theroux and people in movies and nobody else that I know of. But since Darly and Marianne (Lahti and Tilly) are in a movie, they run into some true zanies.

First, there's a couple of truck drivers, one horny, one poetic, both gentle and ineffectual and unbelievable; then there's a fat waitress called "66" whose dreams come true before their very eyes, even while she's uttering self-conscious "movie" dialogue so unreal it finally becomes irritating, as well as being unbelievable. In Alaska, they meet two illiterate Inuit boys, they meet a kindly old hardware store owner, they meet a grizzly old hound dog man who recalls Darly's stint as a topless dancer. Unbelievable to the letter. But most important they meet . . . themselves.

Unfortunately, we have to meet them.

Tilly is at least endurable. A little of her patented waifishness goes a long way, and her dithering and ditzing get on your nerves, but the character of Marianne grows on you, particularly as she develops a sense of connectedness to the little chunk of Alaska she's acquired and begins to put down roots. She climbs her mountain.

Lahti is another story. Surely the most overrated actress of her generation, Lahti again gets a big, hammy part that she chews until nothing at all is left. One flaw is the script, which gives Darly's toughness far too hip an edge: She's not a person, she's an overbearing stand-up performance on some cable comedy channel, and, worse, her observations have far too much irony and self-awareness in them. Lahti can't just lose herself in Darly the way Sarandon lost herself in Louise: One always feels the actress' vanity and intelligence more than one feels Darly.

And of course Darly has a background, which the movie clumsily reveals, a little epiphany of horror that is meant to make us see how she's suffered but instead makes us see what a twit she's been and how she's the author of her own distress. Her whole personality is resolved into a tidy little package of guilt for a long-ago sin. It's so pat it's unbelievable. She isn't helped much by director Edward Zwick, who should have the touchy-feely stuff down after masterminding "thirtysomething" but can't ever find any momentum in the story; it doesn't build, it just unspools.

'Leaving Normal'

Starring Christine Lahti and Meg Tilly.

Directed by Edward Zwick.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

**

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