Guns don't kill people, but for some reason Betty Lou claims she does

MOVIES

August 21, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

'The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag'

Starring Penelope Ann Miller and Eric Thal.

Directed by Allan Moyle.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated PG-13.

**

There is definitely a gun in Betty Lou's handbag, but is there a brain in Betty Lou's head?

Meant to be a parable of selfhood and empowerment, the comedy drama "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag" instead founders on such stupidity of motive that it becomes all but unbelievable, a bitter shame because it wastes some first-class performances.

This film turns on a question it can never answer adequately: Why would a sane, apparently intelligent woman up and confess to a capital crime she was incapable of committing? The movie's answer degrades her and trivializes itself: She does it for the attention.

Perky Penelope Ann Miller plays mousy Betty Lou Perkins, small town librarian and submissive wife to young detective Alex Perkins. Nothing much happens in Tetley, Mo., except for the usual run of rural-burg banalities and infidelities; but suddenly a used car salesman is blown away in his motel room and the mysterious killer throws the pistol into the river. Somehow -- the laws of physics are even less important than the laws of psychology in a movie like this -- the 2-pound blue steel automatic floats to shore, where it is picked up by Betty Lou's dog and presented to Betty Lou, who thereupon inserts it into her famous purse.

What, is this woman a moron? Doesn't she watch TV? Doesn't she know that guns hurt people? When she takes it to a department store woman's room and actually pulls the trigger, she is surprised that it goes off. She thought a flag saying BANG would come out?

The film's central issue is its irresolvable paradox: In order for the movie to work, Betty Lou must be utterly stupid; but if she's utterly stupid, it's difficult for the audience to care for her, so the movie won't work. It just destroys itself. And her next move is a lulu. Upset that nobody takes her seriously, she confesses to the murder, confounding all who know her, particularly her condescending husband.

The joke is that the false confession doesn't diminish her, it inflates her: In the glare of limelight, she grows as a person, discovering her sexual identity and her gender role. She is

woman, hear her roar. Nothing is better for the soul, the movie argues, than committing perjury in a federal felony case. Say what?

If you can swallow this, what follows has a certain dogged charm about it, helped immensely by Miller's indefatigable likability in a thankless role and by Eric Thal, who labors with a great deal of energy to bring some complexity to the boy scout role of the husband. Thal was last seen -- or rather not seen -- under a beard and forelocks as the rebbe's son in "A Stranger Among Us." Now he looks as corn-fed and Midwestern as any Ohio State quarterback this side of Art Schlichter.

And, last and best, the wonderful character actor William Forsythe has a great turn as sleazy Billy Joe Beaudeen, third-generation Cajun Mafioso, up from N'Awleans to supervise his interests in the matter (the dead man happened to be a hood on the run who was blackmailing him, and he believes Betty Lou has the tape upon which this extortion depended). I wish someone would make a real movie about Billy Joe; he is interesting.

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