This 'Love' won't stand the test of time

February 26, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Every beautiful, talented actress has one somewhere in her career: a bad hair movie.

"Love Field" is Michelle Pfeiffer's bad hair movie, and her hair ain't just bad, Jack, it's awful!

See, she's supposed to be a low-rent Dallas housewife in the year 1963, who's spent a bit too much time dangerously dreaming of Jackie. For some strange reason, she has decided that the path to the one true Jackie lies through gallon bottles of hydrogen peroxide, which has turned her hair into something from outer space. This most beautiful and gifted of women looks like Princess Ooma from the Planet Ditmar, with a crown of nuclear blond detonating floozily off her skull. It isn't hair, it's the epicenter of atomic hell.

If only the movie were so hot.

Earnest and plodding, it's a road movie looking for a road, a Thelma without a Louise. It's only substantial kick is cheap: the death of the president. I defy any filmmaker to splice in footage from the most terrible weekend in American history, Thursday through Sunday, November 22 through 25, 1963, without unleashing a cascade of emotion in the hearts of Americans who remember.

But however powerfully this is handled in "Love Field" by director Jonathan Kaplan, it's really peripheral to the story, which is about Pfeiffer's relationship on the cross-country bus (she wants to go to the funeral in Washington, D.C.,) with a dignified African-American man and his daughter. In other words, the murder of the president of the United States is just a set-up.

It's not that Dennis Haysbert's performance as the dignified African-American is problematic; quite the opposite. Haysbert is easily the best thing in the movie, though Don Roos' script really doesn't give him much to do except pose like a granite Mount Rushmore president and issue the stony sighs of a martyr to the republic. Years back, Denzel Washington wisely opted out of this project for exactly that reason; he knew it was a poster rather than a role.

The real problem is the movie seems to defy any kind of sociological reality. Though Pfeiffer's character is slightly unhinged by the earlier death of a child and by the death of the president, she acts so recklessly with regard to Haysbert's Paul Cater that you want to throttle her. Surely any woman with a lick of sense born and bred in the pre-Civil Rights South would know better than to all but throw herself at a black man in public places such as buses and bus stations. To do so is to endanger him out of all proportion to whatever pleasures his company might provide; it's to turn selfishness and callowness to new heights.

He's put in existential hell: If he tells her to get lost, he's being rude to the white lady; if he lets her enter his life, he runs the risk of inciting the base racist fears of the time and place and must then face those consequences. In her way, Pfeiffer's Lurene is more dangerous than Michael Douglas' psycho defense worker in "Falling Down."

The plot can be summarized this way: One bad idea after another. When she tumbles to the fact that all is not well between Cater and his daughter, she calls the FBI. Bad idea. Too late she learns that he's stolen the child from an abusive orphanage, which was probably a bad idea. Now the FBI and the state police agencies of the South are on the trail. So they steal a car -- bad idea! -- and take off across the South, a black man with a kidnapped child and a white woman in a stolen car in the South of the early '60s!

The movie keeps shuffling through melodramatic coils that don't come to much, the point of which, ultimately, is to teach Pfeiffer that it is possible to love a man regardless of the color of his skin. People, after all, are just people. That's a wonderful lesson, but the movie doesn't teach it very well. It ends on a grotesque note, in which once again the hair is the symbol of the soul. Her old self -- Marilyn from Beyond Venus -- has vanished and she seems to have evolved into a slightly higher form of life -- Joey Heatherton from the Planet Encinco!

"Love Field"

Starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert.

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan.

Released by Orion.

Rated R.

**

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