'Rich in Love' squanders a fine theme on picturesque photography

March 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Change. It breaks your heart sometimes, but it comes, and only the foolish man or woman wastes his or her precious strength in fighting against it. You have to adapt or die, and that's the one true rule of nature and the theme of "Rich in Love."

It's a great theme, and I wish it were a great movie, but it's not. NTC It's only OK, even though the team behind it last got together to bring "Driving Miss Daisy" to life. That's director Bruce Beresford, screenwriter Alfred Uhry and producers Lili Fini and Richard D. Zanuck. The movie, drawn from a novel by Josephine Humphries, is about a proud, prosperous southern clan whose matriarch one day decides, to hell with this -- and simply marches out. Literally, it's that fast. She doesn't even unpack the groceries (she'd been shopping); the ice cream melts. First to discover the defection is 17-year-old Lucille (Kathryn Erbe) who puts the ice cream in the freezer and then -- a romantic to the bone -- rewrites mama's somewhat abrupt farewell note into something sloppier and more sentimental. Everybody's a critic!

Lucille is the point-of-view character and in the months that follow, we watch events through her eyes and are privy to her desperate secret fight to return things to "normal": to get mama back in the kitchen and everything right in the universe again. She's not mature enough to know that the past is another country; you can't get there from here.

It's a losing battle. Slightly dotty dad Warren (Albert Finney), a retired builder, is perplexed and upset but soon enough is back to his pottering ways. He's one of those charming men who would be hell to live with because he insists upon "forgetting" things and soon has commandeered poor Lucille into performing the little maintenance tasks that his wife used to perform. And soon enough, he's picked up a girlfriend.

Meanwhile, older sister Rae, the sort of young woman people would describe as "a firecracker," comes home with a husband from Winnetka and a baby in her belly and a belfry full of problems. Rae, played by sunny Suzy Amis, quickly takes the movie over; she's one of those casually charismatic beauties used to turning heads and breaking hearts when she walks into the room. Doting husband Billy McQueen (Kyle Maclachlan) tries to keep her happy (impossible) while foraging a secret compact with the more sensible Lucille.

This movie is entirely too beautiful for its own good. It's set at the South Carolina shore (we're in "Prince of Tides" territory) but the natural beauty isn't the problem. Rather it's that the director gives in too extravagantly to his visual talents. Some of the shots are breathtakingly framed and photographed, but the beauty has such sheen and slickness to it that it feels hollow; it has nothing to do with the story and actually works against it.

Beresford is a mighty strange customer, who seems to wander between the sublime and the banal without much thought. He's made at least one great movie, "Breaker Morant," one brilliant movie "Black Robe," one pretty good movie, "Driving Miss Daisy," and one horrible movie (filmed here), "Her Alibi." Maybe the message in his career is: Stay out of Baltimore, bub!

Along with Beresford's phony pictorialism, the script churns up too many phony scenes. It just seemed too much of a stretch into movie fantasy that the two sisters go to a black nightclub where it turns out that Rae is a beloved blues singer who gets up on stage and belts out a number like Billie Holiday. And much of the dialogue feels frumpy and precious, despite good performances from each actor, particularly Finney, who does great dottiness. But somehow the central character, Lucille, never feels alive; she doesn't have the perkiness of her older sister or the dottiness of her father or the earnestness of her dreary new brother-in-law. It may be that Erbe isn't, at her young age, actress enough to carry a film. And Jill Clayburgh shows up in the last reel as the mother who ran away. It turns out she hasn't run very far, but she has run well. Obviously, she'd read the script.

"Rich in Love"

Starring Albert Finney and Kathryn Erbe.

Directed by Bruce Beresford.

Released by MGM.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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