There's no cure for 'The Road to Wellville'

October 28, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

One of the base canards of American film culture argues that the problem with the movies is that they're run by businessmen, not artists. If only the artists ran the movies, all that would be different.

Not so, not even close. Here's "The Road to Wellville," by British auteur Alan Parker, in which Columbia Pictures invested approximately $30 million or so and let him go wherever his muse would take him. Where it has taken him is down the road to hell, which, like "The Road to Wellville," is paved with good intentions.

The movie turns out to be all but unendurable. It's a $30 million bowel-movement joke and the biggest case for executive mismanagement and cowardice since "Heaven's Gate" and until The Professional" next month (incidentally, also from Columbia!).

Parker derived his film from a novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, which appears to be a "Ragtime"-like riff on the bizarre turn-of-the-century health theories of corn flakes magnate John H. Kellogg, who believed that the road to Wellville ran through the alimentary canal.

Spending millions, Parker re-creates a lavish sanitarium at Battle Creek, Mich., where Kellogg preached his theories before well-turned out Michiganders who paid to receive the cure. It involved as many as five enemas a day, when they weren't sitting in electrified water or performing mild aerobics. As someone in the film says, "With friends like these, who needs enemas?"

The film dances lightly between three or four stories of those passing through the Hallowed Halls of the sanitarium, which looks like the Homestead with bedpans. The dialogue turns heavily on matters of the lower colon, as when Anthony Hopkins, as the crank genius Kellogg, announces grandly to poor Matthew Broderick, "My own stool, sir, is immense and perfectly formed. It has no odor at all, except in that it reminds me of a freshly baked biscuit." Believe me, a lot of this goes not very far at all.

The fundamental flaw in the film, which is intermittently if statically amusing, is that the complex intertwining of narratives pretty much fails to work. The stories don't play off of each other in amusing, ironic or illuminating ways.

Parker will frequently go into elaborate orgies of cross-cutting, as, say, between John Cusack as a budding Kellogg trying to set up his own corn flakes operation, and poor Broderick running about trying to alert the nurses that a Russian guest and an attendant have been electrocuted. But the cross-cutting, which in the grammar of film makes an equation between the two episodes more intense than mere synchronicity, turns out to have no particular meaning.

Now and then, as it wends laboriously along, "The Road to Wellville" produces a moment or two of amusement. The best bits are flashbacks, in Kellogg's mind, as he recalls the difficulties he had raising an adopted son, who was by nature contrary. Yet that son has turned out in the movie's present-time to be drunken, dirty, disheveled Dana Carvey, and there seems no connection at all between the bright and rebellious boy and the bum he's become.

The stories themselves are almost without interest. One follows Broderick and Bridget Fonda as a couple seeking the cure -- she a believer, he not -- and her subsequent sexual exploitation at the hands of a variety of healthy cranks who cling to the margins of Battle Creek health culture.

Another watches Cusack's victimization at the hands of a con man played in florid high style by Michael Lerner; and the third charts the twisted anger between Kellogg and his disappointing son. None of the lesser actors registers much, particularly the two wan younger leads. Hopkins has a grand old time, with a buck tooth, a crew cut and a Teddy Roosevelt accent, radiating intense but zany faith, but it's not so much a performance as an impression, completely static.

"The Road to Wellville" is hard, dusty traveling.

"The Road to Wellville"

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Bridget Fonda

Directed by Alan Parker

Released by Columbia

Rated R

*

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