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‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1994

 


Director:
Gus Van Sant
Cast:
Uma Thurman;
John Hurt;
Rain Phoenix;
Noriyuki
R
Under 17 restricted


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Much ballyhooed, much-anticipated, the movie version of Tom Robbins's extravagantly playful road romance "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" was set for release last November, but got such a ho-hum response from preview audiences that in-over-his-head director Gus Van Sant took it back and diddled with it some more.

He should have just started from scratch. Saddled with leaden lead performances, hobbled by an arch, incoherent script and pokey pacing, the new, improved "Cowgirls" is a miscarriage -- misconceived, miscast, miserably boring. And misogynistic, too -- perhaps the queerest thing about this adaptation of Robbins's freewheeling feminist 1976 novel, which celebrates rebellious cowgirls and their lighthearted lesbianism.

Anatomy is clearly destiny in Sissy Hankshaw's (Uma Thurman) case. Blessed and cursed with outsized thumbs, she's a born hitchhiker. Early on, there's a cute montage scene of Thurman practicing her arcane art, causing buses, biplanes, even shooting stars to screech to a halt for her.

Those prodigiously phallic digits will also come in handy in her love life. "I see men in your life . . . " says Roseanne Arnold, leading the film's parade of kitschy star cameos, as a gypsy fortuneteller reading young Thurman's palm. "I also see women . . . lots and lots and lots of women."

The movie skips like a stone over Thurman's career as a model for Yoni Yum feminine hygiene products, a company owned by the malignantly fey Countess (John Hurt), who also operates the Rubber Rose beauty ranch, staffed by mutinous macha cowgirls.

As Thurman zig-zags around the country, finally helping the cowgirls in their quest to liberate the Rubber Rose from patriarchal oppression, Van Sant gets bogged down in a jumble of distracting subplots, and the movie finally just dribbles away, leaving audiences twiddling their thumbs.

In a reverent panic to cram in all the key plot points of Robbins's psychedelically enhanced story, Van Sant misses most of its sweet, sunny spirit. And Robbins's loopy narrative descriptions are stuffed awkwardly into characters' mouths as dialogue. In this case, it doesn't even help if you've read the book.

Thurman's strangely passive characterization doesn't go much deeper than drawling and flexing her prosthetic thumbs. Van Sant awarded the other big role -- Jellybean Bonanza, leader of the mutinous cowgirls -- to untried Rain Phoenix (sister of the late River, to whom the film is dedicated). She's earthy and enthusiastic, but uncharismatic and underskilled.

Hurt, who played Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant," takes his scary queen shtick to new extremes as the Countess -- he resembles the Joker on the old "Batman" show. Appearances by such veteran scenery-chewers as Angie Dickinson, Sean Young and Lorraine Bracco (and cameos by such countercultural icons as William Burroughs and Ken Kesey) are unforgiveably wasted.

Face it: Some books just aren't suited to be filmed. Pinning them down on the screen reduces the fabulous to the mundane. What survives here are some pretty time-lapse shots of the Western night sky and k. d. lang's inspired C&W soundtrack, which was released last year and is clearly more attuned to the novel's wacky and generous spirit.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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