Failed whimsy, messy subplots knock 'Cowgirls' off the horse

May 20, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Even cowgirls get the blahs.

That's the unmistakable evidence provided by the dreary "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." Artlessly spun from the whimsical Tom Robbins novel of the '70s, the film never begins to find its footing as it staggers onward through adventures that become increasingly desperate. It's actually quite an unpleasant experience to endure. Presumably Robbins meant his novel as a celebration of American femininity in its various forms as against misogynistic corporate and cultural interests. Presumably he kept it light-footed, witty, deft. But the movie is as leaden as an ingot, beginning with a central conceit that may have charmed on the page but seems grotesque on the screen.

Sissy Hankshaw, Robbins' valiant, peripatetic hero -- a kind of Candy (or Candide) of the '70s -- is the true essence of liberation. She is by profession a world-class hitchhiker, who roams the United States having adventures and seeking her destiny, a fate to which she was born by virtue of her oversized thumbs. Perhaps on the page, this notion had some appeal. When Uma Thurman, dimly playing Sissy, shows off a couple of movie-phony giant thumbs that look as if they're crudely sculpted from Play-Doh, the illusion, and the movie it's meant to sustain, dies.

The story is as peripatetic as Sissy, fecklessly roaming the roads, looking for something it can never find. As it opens, Sissy, nearly 30 and stunningly beautiful, has wandered for nearly two decades and finally come to the conclusion it's time to lose her virginity. She's invited to New York by the Countess, a cross-dressing cosmetics millionaire played to the nines by John Hurt in a pretty good imitation of Tallulah Bankhead. He introduces her to a young artist (Keanu Reeves), who may be the one to deliver her from maidenhood. But this wimpy little plot is dropped quickly, and the Reeves character never begins to make much sense, much less come to life.

The majority of the film plays in a coy, precious tone on the Countess' Montana ranch and spa, where his minions -- notably Angie Dickinson -- are engaged in a struggle with "the cowgirls," a posse of lesbian ranch workers who object to the debasing standards of "beauty" the ranch-spa stands for. They are led by the increasingly more appalling Lorraine Bracco, strident and off-putting, and by Rain Phoenix, sister of the late River, who starred in the director's "My Own Private Idaho."

The depth of the River connection can be the only reason for Rain's appearance as a character called -- more leaden whimsy -- "Bonanza Jellybean." She's by no stretch of the imagination a professional actress and, given the limited extent of Thurman's own skills, the love affair between her and Sissy, meant to be the fuel that drives the engine, remains resolutely inert.

The movie was famously withdrawn from release last fall for emergency recutting by Van Sant. The newly revamped product looks like a film that's been recut in the middle of a typhoon. The truncation of the Keanu Reeves subplot is only one such barbarism; other famous faces show up in parts reduced to snippets, including Roseanne Arnold, Sean Young, Ed Begley Jr. and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita. Even William S. Burroughs appears in a meaningless scene.

It also feels dated -- a chunk of hyperfervid '70s counterculture simply dumped, unaltered, into our less sentimental and more dangerous time. The cowgirls are devotees of peyote, among other interests, which the film represents as a radical lifestyle choice instead of a stupid waste of time. Its villains are the usual straw men easy to tilt on their butts, and its heroines represent the spirit of cloying phony-mysticism and squawky, strident feminism. There's no one to root for except yourself for surviving it.

It's just a mess.

"Even Cowgirls Get the Blues"

Starring Uma Thurman and Rain Phoenix

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Released by Fine Line

Rated R

*

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