Piecing together too many patches

October 06, 1995|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,SUN FILM CRITIC

How not to make an American movie:

* Pander to a female audience.

* Tell too many stories, none of them well.

* Don't give enough of the two best performances, by Ellen Burstyn and Anne Bancroft.

* Cynically throw in African-Americans, but don't let them do anything. After all, they're only there to improve the demographics.

* Encourage star Winona Ryder to indulge her dippiest, least endearing traits.

* "Amblin-ize" it: that is, direct it in the house style of the Spielberg unit at Universal, flooding it with a sense of synthetic wonder that's completely inappropriate to the materials and wholly new to the work of Jocelyn Moorhouse, the brilliant Aussie director of "Proof" and "Muriel's Wedding."

That's what's wrong with "How To Make an American Quilt." What's right with it is that its maddening inconsistency produces occasional brilliance just as randomly as it produces its occasional banality and that its overarching value -- the powerful bond of women's experience -- will touch millions of people, though none of them wearing jockey shorts.

Derived from an odd master's thesis/novel by Whitney Otto, it takes as its present a summer spent in a Northern California town of Grasse by one Finn (Ryder), an anthropology graduate student conflicted by the marriage proposal she's just received from her boyfriend, Sam (Dermot Mulroney). Thus she's repaired to her grandmother's Victorian home to re-write her thesis, consider her options . . . and listen.

It seems that by almost tribal instinct, summer is quilting time, and the women of the town gather each afternoon to piece together a new folk masterpiece, talking as they work. The gist of the story is that, working on the quilt or otherwise deployed around town, each one recounts an adventure in her own life or in another that casts a shaft of illumination on this difficult business of men and women.

But there are entirely too many stories, and they're entirely too briefly told, and they're all told in the passive shorthand voice of -- the recollection rather than the immediate voice of dramatization. None of them has any real impact and none of them has been artfully crafted to reflect the exact concerns of Finn's situation. They have in common no tone but only point of view: that men are children or sluts, with one exception -- when they're both children and sluts.

The best of the stories recounts the source of the nasty bickering between Finn's grandmother and grand-aunt, Glady Joe and Hy, played by Bancroft and Burstyn. It seems that years back, when Glady Joe's husband was dying of cancer, the presence of death planted in her loins an incredible urge to affirm life with sex, and the only available male body around belonged to Hy's husband (Rip Torn). The two actresses are such powerhouses that they bring this adulterous feather of a tale to vigorous life. Moreover, the most ardent source of amusement in the film is their continual sniping at each other, building at last to an act of symbolic forgiveness that is "How To Make an American Quilt's" most heartfelt moment.

Another good story is set in the past of the set's least lovable older woman, Sophia (Lois Smith, barely registering), and explains how she got so sour. It seems that the young Sophia (Samantha Mathis) had an intensely romantic vision of life, almost seeing herself as a princess in a myth, who expresses her longing for freedom in graceful dives. A young man came to town, fell for her and promised to make her myth come true. But men are no good at such things: Soon, after leaving her with too many kids and not enough money, he took off, turning her life to bitter disappointment. It's not so much that the story is dramatic but that the nearly mute Mathis has such an overwhelming presence that she projects the hopeful young Sophia deep into your imagination.

Other stories are less compelling. Jean Simmons is a continual cuckold and Kate Nelligan the latest conquest of her wandering-eyed husband. Both women are extremely grumpy. Kate Capshaw shows up as Finn's flaky mother, to little effect. But "How To Make an American Quilt" strikes its ugliest note with Maya Angelou as Anna, the quilt-maker, and her daughter Marianna, played by Alfre Woodard.

Stereotypes are stereotypes, even if they happen to be positive. As "Quilt" treats these two African-Americans, they are somehow more "spiritual" and "instinctive" than their white counterparts, almost as if they are of a different species with minds that process information differently. It means to honor them, of course, by exalting them, but it actually demeans them, offering tepid little stories.

Meanwhile, back in the main story, poor Finn is trying to decide whether or not to marry Sam or give in to the male-model beauty of Leon (Johnathon Schaech), a townie who takes a liking to her. For some reason, Ryder, whose work I have admired for years, never really connects with this role.

The movie would have been much better served and much more powerful if it had concentrated on a smaller tale -- "How to Make an American Doily" might have just done the trick.

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