'Prince of Pennsylvania' (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1988
Stuff happens in "The Prince of Pennsylvania" -- it's just that none of it amounts to much. It's a movie full of incidents, outbursts, broken glass and wounded feelings. At one point a man drowns his wife's VCR in their swimming pool, and the tiny bubbly gurgle the thing makes as it sinks below the surface is priceless.
It's a perfect comic touch, a sublime detail.
But that's "The Prince of Pennsylvania" in a nutshell -- frisky and alive on the edges, dead at the center. The movie, which was written and directed by Ron Nyswaner, is about a precocious teen-ager named Rupert (Keanu Reeves) who is disillusioned by the grown-up world. His father (Fred Ward), who works in a coal mine, badgers him and doesn't understand his eccentricities -- or why he dropped out of school, wears a half-crew-cut punk hairstyle, and lives in the garage, surrounded by inexplicable gadgets.
His mother, played by Bonnie Bedelia, who has a sly, sexy way with her line readings, is looser and at least lends him moral support, but she demonstrates that she too is a corrupt, undependable adult by cheating on her husband with his best friend. (Rupert discovers this the way he discovers most things -- by spying.)
Eventually, Rupert's father finds out about his wife's infidelity (and takes out his wrath on innocent appliances). At this stage, Rupert concocts a scheme to kidnap his father and hold him ransom for the $200,000 his mother would get from selling the land that they own -- land that his father won't sell, which is why the kidnaping is necessary.
This is what we in the business call a plot twist. But we could also call it a desperation move by a screenwriter who can't figure out how to develop his themes and decides instead to trash his own characters by turning them into figures in a dumb farce. By the time this twist is put into action and Rupert's father is chained to a chair in a trailer, the movie is pretty much over, at least as far as our interest goes.
Nyswaner gives the picture a mutty sensibility, but his sense of idiosyncratic detail is watered down by the corny banalities at the picture's heart. The only explanation for this odd mix of funkiness and hokum is that Nyswaner is also from a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania -- in other words, this is his story and he probably couldn't find the objectivity needed to see how overworked this ground was.
"The Prince of Pennsylvania" takes an idolatrous view of adolescence, and it may ring true to teens who feel misplaced and alienated from their parents. (Has there ever been a teen-ager who didn't feel this way?) For the rest of us, though, it may seem self-pitying and precious. Nyswaner seems to think his teen hero is justified in feeling wronged by his blustering macho dad and right in throwing a trash drum through the picture window of his girlfriend's drive-in restaurant when he discovers she's been unfaithful to him. (Amy Madigan plays the unreconstructed hippie with whom Rupert is in love.) He's an idealist, and it's assumed that we'll see the sensitivity behind his obsession with the truth and side with him in these conflicts.
With another actor in the role we might have felt more sympathy for Rupert's anguished floundering. And it's not that Reeves is without charms -- he's a shaggy, likable actor -- but he's not really engaged enough as a performer for us to get a fix on him or accept him as the misunderstood genius most everyone assumes him to be. Ironically, our sympathies go to Fred Ward, largely because he is so skilled at conveying the father's cross-eyed frustrations over his puzzling boy. (You could do worse for parents than Ward and Bedelia.)
The picture has a snappy, off-the-cuff look; everywhere you look there are found riches. (The film's real star is production designer Toby Corbett.) If Nyswaner had resisted the impulse to turn his story into something more conventional and more commercial, he might have made a promising debut. Instead, what he's made is a frisky, beguiling mess.
The Prince of Pennsylvania is rated R
Copyright The Washington Post