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‘A Perfect World’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 26, 1993


Clint Eastwood
Kevin Costner;
Clint Eastwood;
Laura Dern;
TJ Lowther;
Keith Szarabajka
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Kids are wonderful little beings, inheritors of the earth and all that. But let's face it: They're infesting the movies. Obsessed with securing family audiences, Hollywood is rigging its plots with kids who tag along with Terminators, Action Heroes, RoboCops, dinosaurs, whales and single mothers. This isn't the Age of Innocence, it's the year of PG-13.

In "A Perfect World," a "Shane"-like pairing of Kevin Costner with newcomer T. J. Lowther, director Clint Eastwood gets caught up in the junior gold rush. You'd think Dirty Harry had paid his dues with all those orangutan movies. This latest project from Eastwood's Malpaso productions, a Warner Bros.-distributed drama, passes market-research muster but little else.

In 1963, Costner is serving 40 years for armed robbery when he busts out of jail with unsavory partner Keith Szarabajka. Breaking into a home for provisions, they find themselves under fire. So they take 7-year-old Lowther hostage. The kid is terrified of Szarabajka but, under Costner's kindly wing, he starts to enjoy the boyish thrill of the chase. When Costner and Szarabajka part hostile ways, the Outlaw-and-the-Kid bonding goes into major overdrive, as the new-found duo eludes cops, G-men and Texas Rangers.

Which brings us to the other plot, starring Eastwood, Laura Dern and a small collection of Texas character actors. In charge of the manhunt, Ranger Eastwood runs things from a "high-tech" mobile trailer -- the new toy of his friend, the governor. But Eastwood has to abide the needling input of state envoy Dern, a criminologist who uses things like psychological surveys to track criminals. You can imagine the bickering between by-the-book, feminist-conscious Dern and grizzled good ol' boy Eastwood.

Within its narrow, unambitious, commercial boundaries, the movie is highly watchable. Lowther is appealing, and Costner is a likable rebel -- on the wrong side of the law only because of extenuating circumstances (see flashback involving younger Costner and Eastwood for details).

Screenwriter John Lee Hancock creates well-wrought tension. In one harrowing scene, Costner shops at a Friendly's store, flirts back at a smitten assistant and keeps a wary eye on a highly suspicious manager. (In fugitive movies, all citizens have easy access to wanted posters and front-page mug shots.) In a later, climactic moment, Costner gets a little too furious at the way a rural man slaps his son around.

But if "Perfect" wins certain dramatic points within its scenes, the overall story is a mess. Eastwood spends the whole movie chasing Costner. The film's biggest stars don't meet until the movie has essentially run its course. Eastwood's plot is so self-contained, it loses all connection to Costner's drama. When, at a strategic moment in the chase, the Texas Ranger's trailer is accidentally unhitched and streaks off on its own into the Texas countryside, it illustrates how unimportant his progress is to the movie.

Much is made of the fact that events take place two weeks before President Kennedy's fateful Dealey Plaza visit. But the foreshadowy reference is -- at best -- lamely connected to the chain of events at the end. When Costner and Eastwood finally make their delayed appointment, the dramatic hyperbole is stacked ridiculously high. You've got the kid and Costner at one end, a circle of cops, G-men and sharpshooters at another and a hovering helicopter carrying Lowther's mother overhead.

Oh wait, now I get it! This overemployment of Texas firepower explains the lack of security in Dallas when Lee Harvey Oswald raised his rifle and changed the course of political history.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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