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‘Miss Firecracker’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 12, 1989

Set in Yazoo City, Mississippi, "Miss Firecracker" burbles with the music of crazy white people -- it's alive with glorious cracker talk. Based on the Beth Henley play of almost the same name, the film centers on a family of benign lunatics who migrate back to their ramshackle ancestral estate around the time its youngest member, Carnelle (Holly Hunter), is preparing herself for the Miss Firecracker Contest, the town's annual beauty pageant.

The shadow of Tara falls hard across this story, and to some extent it's the tawdry dreams of the old South that its characters are trying to break away from. Carnelle is fixated on the competition because it offers "visible proof" of the acceptance she has been seeking ever since she was dumped at 8 on her aunt's front steps. Her cousin Elain (Mary Steenburgen) was awarded the honor many years earlier, and the image of her, in her red dress, beaming and waving from atop her float, is burned into Carnelle's memory.

Problem is, Carnelle -- whose nickname around town is "Hot Tamale" -- isn't exactly beauty pageant material. Because of her soiled reputation, when word gets out that Carnelle has dyed her hair cranberry red and entered the contest, it's cause for widespread snickering. By this point, though, the contestant herself is oblivious to gossip. Hunter launches into Carnelle's obsession with dynamic single-mindedness. This is a strong, funny, passionately physical performance. With Carnelle, explosions, tears, hair-tearing all seem only moments away. But there's a puppyish side to her character, too, especially in her scenes with Tim Robbins, who plays her violent, philosophizing cousin Delmount.

All the characters in "Miss Firecracker" are exaggerations; their emotions are large-scaled and florid, and they speak in a kind of stylized wacko poetry. "They say we'll all be dying someday," Carnelle says. "And I believe it too!" Delmount, who claims he's tired of hiding from his philosophical leanings, comes home to sell the house left to him by his mother, "the monkey" (she was given an ape's "pituary" gland when hers failed and long black hairs started sprouting out of her body). Delmount sees redemption in unloading the old place and leaving Yazoo City in a blaze of glory. Also, he needs to make some quick money so he can go away to college and find out what life's all about. "It'd be a great relief, I believe."

Henley's play isn't an outstanding piece for adaptation. It alludes to its themes rather than developing them, and the influence of other playwrights -- most notably Tennessee Williams -- is far too strong for it to have much personality of it own. But Henley writes some smashingly funny dialogue, and even when her characters are hackneyed and predictable, she gives her actors something to play.

And for the most part, they play marvelously. The one black voice in the chorus belongs to a seamstress named Popeye (played with genuine feisty sweetness by Alfre Woodard), who practices her craft by making little outfits for bullfrogs. As a carnival roustabout with TB, Scott Glenn suffers more than the rest from cliche's in the writing, but his wiry body is so worn-away-looking that the character is still moving. And as Delmount, Tim Robbins gives a stormy, imposing performance, and he shows the same light touch with comedy here that he did in "Bull Durham." This is a spectacular young actor.

The only real disappointment in the cast is Mary Steenburgen. All the actors are playing caricatures, but the others have discovered the truth behind the exaggerations. Steenburgen plays only the mannerisms.

Undeniably, the material romanticizes Southern life as harmlessly eccentric. This is the nutty, not the bloody South -- a place for benign fruitcakes. And though Thomas Schlamme's direction is fluid and energetic -- he doesn't get bogged down in all the talk -- except for a scene in which Delmount is seen picking up squashed dogs off the blacktop, and one where the women stand on a street corner with the hot wind whipping around their knees, there's not much of a feel for the physical South. All this contributes to the sense that the play hasn't so much been produced as tamed. Ultimately, there's not enough genuine wildness to these dark, passionate and half-crazy people. "Miss Firecracker" is the South made cute.

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