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'Thousand Acres': Fallow Melodrama

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 19, 1997

That Jane Smiley’s "A Thousand Acres" would become a movie was inevitable. Another virtual certainty was its bowdlerization.

The novelist’s successful respinning of Shakespeare’s "King Lear," set in the rural Midwest of 1979, was about a ruthless, aging father, whose 1,000-acre farm -- and its inheritance -- triggered a bitter dispute among his three daughters. Smiley wove these melodramatic elements into a highly accomplished novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle award and millions of admirers.

"A Thousand Acres"-the-movie, which stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh, shows the pitfalls involved when adapting any book, especially one with deep-seated characterizations, multiple and intricate relationships, and dramatic developments that span lifetimes. Without Smiley’s connecting prose (although we’re subjected to long bouts of narration), there’s nothing left but the melodrama.

When gloomy patriarch Larry Cook (Jason Robards) announces his intention to bequeath his profitable farm to all three daughters, two of his children, Ginny (Lange) and Rose (Pfeiffer), respond positively. But Caroline (Leigh), the youngest, expresses her doubts without explanation. Larry flies into a rage that -- over the course of the movie -- transmogrifies into madness.

The ensuing sourness in the air leads to other family disclosures, including an emotionally debilitating family secret shared by Rose and Ginny. (There are no prizes for guessing what this trauma might be; of late, it has become Hollywood’s most overused skeleton in the closet.) Other painful issues come out, including Rose’s health (she had a mastectomy), Ginny’s bizarre fidelity to her father (even when he calls her a "whore") and a seductive visitor named Jess (Colin Firth), who sows further discord in the Cook family.

As directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, who made "Proof" and "How to Make an American Quilt," the film’s alternately dark and mushy: We’re watching angry, dysfunctional people in a brightly lit movie and serenaded with a score that’s a notch above elevator music. Screenwriter Laura Jones wants to make it a feminist tract, too, in which Rose and Ginny form an eventual solidarity and build an emotional levee against this world’s flood tide of male abuse. Yet she treats her characters shorthandedly: Rose is angry and direct, Ginny’s the repressed peacemaker and Caroline (especially with Leigh’s trademark, sulky performance) is a strange, twisted little thing. It almost goes without saying that -- without Smiley’s sense of balance -- the men (including a weirdly goofy Keith Carradine as Lange’s husband) are reduced to bastards, goons or both.

The teaming of Pfeiffer, Lange and Leigh has more to do with box-office politics than bona fide casting. We know these actors so well, it would take a greater script than this to make us forget they’re not blood relations. If there are any positives to point to, it would be Lange’s performance. Her emotional battle to avoid harsh realities is sure to put her up for those big-time awards. It’s too bad she’s emoting away in an empty drama that -- with all its narrative ellipses -- should have been called "A Hundred Acres."

A THOUSAND ACRES (R) — Contains profanity, sexual situations, nudity and minor violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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