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‘The River Wild’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 30, 1994

In "The River Wild,” Meryl Streep and her brood are suffering acute family dysfunction syndrome. While homemaker Streep—a former wilderness jock—treads water unhappily at the house with two kids and a dog, yuppie-hubby David Strathairn slaves days, nights and weekends at the office.

“It’s your son’s birthday,” Streep reminds the paternal deadbeat. “Again.”

Only one thing can reunite this family: A nightmarish white-water rafting trip with a couple of freeloading psychos (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly) on board. There’s nothing like a stirring, near-death experience to get Mom and Dad talking again. Estranged spouses, please don’t try this on vacation.

In this bizarre, nuttily diverting fusion of “The Swiss Family Robinson” and “Deliverance,” ex-river guide Streep dumps Strathairn at home (or more accurately, the office) and takes son Joseph Mazzello (and Maggie the dog) on a Western whitewater vacation. As Streep prepares to embark down the picturesque waterway, along comes sweet-talking charmer Kevin Bacon—headed downriver with two friends. First he strikes up a buddy relationship with Mazzello then—when he sets eyes on Streep—a more flirtatious thing with Mom.

Just before both parties push off, Strathairn appears. Seems Dad has decided to give this family thing a whirl. Streep, who has rather enjoyed Bacon’s attentions, is torn between disappointment and excitement. Off they go—three strange men, two boats, one divided family and a dog—all bound for a raging confluence of three rivers called Bridal Creek (as in, marriage on the rocks).

When Streep and company encounter Bacon and Reilly moored by a bank, the two men claim their river-savvy partner has given them the slip, leaving them guideless. Streep agrees to help them steer their raft to Bridal Creek. Excited that Bacon is traveling alongside, Mazzello hops in the men’s raft. But he soon finds out Bacon isn’t exactly the swell guy he thought.

“River Wild” is a business-as-usual, family-empowerment drama from Hollywood. While Streep (decked in rubber gear and performing most of her own stunts) talks tough with Bacon (in the confrontational stages) and holds the family together, Strathairn undergoes a heroic de-yuppiefication. It takes everyone working together to save the day. Even the dog helps. Story clues are laid out before you like a board game for idiots. When Strathairn gives his son a Swiss Army knife for his birthday, when the family proves to be literate in sign language (Streep’s father is deaf), and when Streep explains the Indians’ vision quest ritual (essentially a sojourn into the wilds to encounter guardian spirits), you know these things will turn out to be useful.

But if watched from a mildly amused, forgiving distance, the movie has its enjoyable moments—good and campy. The surging rapids—enhanced by adroit camerawork and special effects—make an exhilarating spectacle. Whenever Streep (determined to prove she, too, can play physical, mass-entertainment roles) takes paddle to rapids (in picturesque slow motion), waterfalls of rhapsodic music engulf the audience, creating the impression that huge banks of speakers are attached to the bluffs. Director Curtis Hanson (who also directed “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”) is handy with suspense tactics. The dangers—both man-made and natural—become entertainingly unnerving. Bacon makes the most of his choice bad-boy role, with crotch-thrusting menace and a wicked, razor-thin smile that could open envelopes. When Mazzello expresses shock Bacon has let him down, the kid says, “I thought you were a nice guy.”

“I am a nice guy,” Bacon insists, visibly hurt at Mazello’s retort. “Just a different kind of nice guy.”

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