Charisma of George Strait is 'Country,' pure and simple

October 23, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

When bitty little George Strait throws back his bitty little head and sings one of those sweet, sad cowboy songs of lost love or enduring friendship, "Pure Country" indeed achieves a kind of purity. Strait is instantly believable and instantly likable: little guy, looks as tough as brass ball bearings, his head almost gobbled up by a hat half the size of Texas, and the other half of him squeezed like toothpaste out of jeans so enameled to his scrawny frame you'd think he'd sing like a Vienna Choir boy. But he has a laid-back country grace and a hard little kernel of self-regard at the center of his presence, and that big old voice is as commanding as a blues saxophone.

Nothing else, alas, in the movie achieves anything near purity. It bounces aimlessly along, picking up and then abandoning story gambits. It's a shame that it squanders Strait's considerable screen charisma.

The story is in some sense built out of unkind country-western rumors. Strait plays a big star who is the Madonna of the Nashville circuit, under the solitary, phony name "Dusty." He's pretty much the creation of a shrewd older woman, Lula Rogers (as played by a hyper-neurotic Lesley Ann Warren), and under her stern dictates he's developed into a glitzy parody of a down-home boy, just a prop in an elaborate stage show heavy on the smoke, strobe lights and sparks. Naturally, Wyatt (as the Strait character is called) hates this phony thing.

The secret drama of the film is the future of country: It's set right at the site of divergence, where a native American art form of great purity and integrity is overwhelmed by corporate interests that insist on "packaging" it into something more attractive to the masses, but a long ways down the road from what its creators envisioned. But of course it does nothing with this powerful idea beyond evoking it and solving the problem by the simplistic formula of cheesy melodrama.

The film follows Dusty as he busts out of the glitz cocoon and sets out to rediscover his roots, coming to rest in anonymity on a Texas ranch inevitably owned by a beautiful woman (Isabel Glasser) in search of companionship. From this point onward, almost nothing new or unusual happens, and the movie is too slow for its own good. It allows Warren too much space to try

and win an Oscar as a bad woman. Perhaps because of Strait's limited acting skills, he has almost no extended scenes involving dialogue, and most of the relationship is telegraphed visually rather than developed emotionally; thus we learn that he and Harley are falling in love when we watch them bound across the prairie on horseback.

If Strait weren't so appealing, the movie would be easier to dismiss. Let's hope it does well enough to give him a second shot and that maybe he can find something a little bit less Vegas and a little bit more East Texas.

'Pure Country'

Starring George Strait, Lesley Ann Warren and Isabel Glasser.

Directed by Christopher Cain.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG.

... **

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