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The Straight Story

(1999) *** G
111 min. Walt Disney. Director: David Lynch. Cast: Sissy Spacek, Jane Galloway Heitz, Joseph A. Carpenter, Donald Wiegert, Richard Farnsworth.

The Straight Story, taken on its own merits, is an amiable enough drama made by a filmmaker of rare skill. But, given that the director is David Lynch, the film's modest creative returns are cause for disappointment for film fans. The intriguing subject matter-- an elderly man's cross-country journey on a riding mower-- would have made an elegant Lynch short at half an hour, but at 111 minutes, Lynch's creative motor remains in low gear.

On the bright side, this easygoing pastoral odyssey charmingly embraces slow-paced rural life. The film's greatest assests are the late Richard Farnsworth, in an Oscar-nominated valedictory performance, and director of photography Freddie Francis, whose landscapes here (among other charming images) are breathtaking. Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, the elderly man striving to see his recuperating stroke-victim brother. Sissy Spacek is typically impressive as Alvin's daughter, depicted here as "slow." Lynch, for his part, contributes some of his patented visual humor, primarily in the film's opening moments and most memorably when his camera tilts to the sky only to slowly tilt down to reveal Alvin's negligible progress on the road.

So what's the problem? Unfortunately, John Roach and Mary Sweeney's script offers mostly trite, forced episodes to pad out the story, like a protracted scene between Alvin and a teen waystrel ending with a cliche straight out of Chicken Soup for the Folksy Soul. Another interlude with feuding twins is obvious and broadly played. Finally, Lynch wraps it all up with a foregone conclusion of not only narrative but style. In fact, the bookending scenes of the picture are dangerously close to self-parody. Much has been made of Lynch's first "G" rating--for Disney, no less!--but the film is not a sell-out. Lynch has always showed a capacity for sweetness and empathy, and isn't he allowed? Nevertheless, The Straight Story is simply awkward and unbalanced as a whole.

After Lynch's nightmare speeding in Lost Highway, The Straight Story's counter-cultural pace is a wicked Lynch joke for the impending turn of the milennium. Even for detractors, that's worth a chuckle.

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