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‘In Country’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 15, 1989


Norman Jewison
Bruce Willis;
Emily Lloyd;
Joan Allen;
Kevin Anderson;
Richard Hamilton;
Judith Ivey;
Peggy Rea
Under 17 restricted

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Soon every major American director will have made his version of Vietnam: The Movie. Norman Jewison's "In Country" is the latest, and perhaps the weakest since Francis Ford Coppola's "Gardens of Stone." Based on a home front novel by Bobbie Ann Mason, this well-meaning muddle aims to cover an old scar with a Band-Aid.

The director of the familial "Moonstruck" would do for a family of Kentuckians what he did for the Italian Americans of his previous success. What's meant to be a cohesive family portrait, a suffering American microcosm, is a shambles of threads dangling and characters adrift. Jewison leaves it to stymied viewers to figure out the gist of it.

Though Bruce Willis has top billing as a troubled Vietnam veteran, British whizbang Emily Lloyd virtually squeezes him off the screen as his live-in niece, whose soldier father died before she was born. Willis, another showboat craving legitimacy, is slightly stale opposite the queen of bounce. Given the script's many cul-de-sacs and blind alleys, however, it's a time before we realize the movie has less to do with his pain or their palhood than with her coming of age.

Lloyd, the cockney of "Wish You Were Here," beat out America's best for the part of Sam Hughes, a rural Kentucky gal who has graduated from high school and is jist a bustin' with gumption. The precocious teen adopts a western Kentucky twang, forthright as the backfire of pickup trucks and pungent as a bushel of burley. She is a peach about to explode, colt frisky, a juicy morsel scampering goosey-loosey all over the sleepy little town of Hopewell. But she's in our face like a starting guard. Calm down, honeychild. Cut out caffeine.

Sam's mother (Joan Allen), who lives in Lexington with her second husband, wants Sam to move in with them and go to the university. But Sam lingers on in Hopewell with her oddball Uncle Emmett in hopes that he will tell her more about her daddy and Vietnam. Emmett, a victim of postwar stress syndrome, insists she won't understand. So Sam searches through old papers, talks with her Mamaw (Peggy Rea) and Grampaw (Richard Hamilton) -- the Ma and Pa Kettle of the '80s -- and finally goads her truculent uncle into an impassioned catharsis.

Then there are all the ravelings -- a best friend's sudden pregnancy that is given major emphasis but has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. And there's Sam's lunky boyfriend, who approaches their courtship like a customer at a drive-in restaurant. The characters we want to know are the least explored -- especially a smoldering vet named Tom (seductive John Terry) who warms to the heroine.

Oscar-winner Frank Pierson of "Cat Ballou," "Cool Hand Luke" and "Dog Day Afternoon" calls this the hardest screenplay he has ever written. With co-writer Cynthia Cidre, he would have high drama out of material that is essentially a teenager's diary. Sam's story calls for intimacy, a smaller scale, a lower profile. But Vietnam, these days, means Herculean. Here Jewison travels to D.C., goes to the Wall for grandeur, a tactic that brings the film's most emotional moments.

"In Country's" strengths are its sentiment and craftsmanship. After "Casualties of War," veterans will probably appreciate this pat on the back.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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