What's the Matter With Kansas?

Film review: 'What's the Matter With Kansas?' explores state's political climate

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

In "What's the Matter With Kansas?" director Joe Winston and producer Laura Cohen follow the tracks of Thomas Frank when he was researching his 2004 book of the same name, in which he analyzed the Republican party's success in a state once known for its radical populism. Crisscrossing the state's southern regions and hanging out in Wichita -- which in 1991 became and continues to be a hub for the antiabortion movement -- the filmmakers focus on characters they clearly consider archetypal of Kansas political culture: a farmer disaffected from both political parties; a home-schooled teenager preparing for her freshman year at the Christian conservative Patrick Henry College in Loudoun County; an eccentric folk artist whose handmade whirligigs evince a misanthropic strain of libertarianism.

But the film's most sympathetic character is the aptly named Angel Dillard, a cheerful farmer and mother of two who loved Ronald Reagan so much that she named her daughter after him ("Reagan," not "Ronald"). She provides the moral ballast in a film that meanders around the fringes of Frank's argument: that the GOP has persuaded the state's white working class to vote against its own economic interests.

"What's the Matter With Kansas?" is loosely organized around the 2006 midterm elections, specifically the Kansas attorney general's race, but its structure is too scattershot and digressive to create much tension. One minute Angel is mesmerizing viewers with the genuinely moving story of her difficult early life and spiritual crisis; the next, another family is exploring the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where a fast-talking astrophysicist explains why the only logical explanation of how the Earth was formed is that it happened a few thousand years ago in six days.

Funny? Scary? Entirely logical? It all depends on your point of view, of course, and "What's the Matter With Kansas?" isn't likely to move viewers one way or another. (The film also seems to take place in a political lifetime long before tea parties and town halls.) Frank himself shows up in a desultory road trip investigating radical cemeteries and the office of a socialist newspaper. Like the film itself, those journeys leave more questions than sharp insights. Still, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" is worth the trip, if only to meet Angel and her neighbors, whom the filmmakers imbue with a welcome measure of dignity and depth.

** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains profanity. 91 minutes. Director Joe Winston and author Tom Frank will discuss the film Friday after the 7:30 and 10 p.m. shows.

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