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‘The Waterdance’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 15, 1992

The streak of autobiographical earnestness in "The Waterdance" is the movie's most memorable trait. The film was written and co-directed by Neal Jimenez, who became paralyzed from the waist down in a freak accident much like the one suffered by the film's hero, Joel (Eric Stoltz). You might expect that a firsthand account of rebuilding your life from the ashes of a debilitating tragedy would set it apart from the other films of its type.

It doesn't.

There's a similar dramatic curve to stories about the challenges of the handicapped, and in "The Waterdance," Jimenez (who also wrote "River's Edge") stops at all the usual stations. The writer's observations are sharp, precise and, at times, moving. But Jimenez doesn't deliver the private, inner perceptions of a man in his predicament, or go beyond what our own imaginations might provide. After Joel breaks his neck in a hiking accident, he becomes a patient in a rehab ward in a well-scrubbed Los Angeles hospital, where all the doctors and nurses are supportive and nice. (This isn't a film about the horrors of patient neglect in a run-down cesspool.)

From the beginning, when he's flat on his back, with his head immobilized in a traction "halo," he faces his ordeal with a measure of ironic detachment. He doesn't feel that bad, he says. After all, he's a writer. He doesn't need his legs. But he expects the big crash to come: "I have it penciled in on my calendar already."

Most of the patients, for that matter, are remarkably upbeat. Even Michael Convertino's jazz-flavored score is surprisingly jaunty. Joel's first new friend is a reformed wild man named Raymond (Wesley Snipes), who looks at his disability as a message from God to pay attention to the wife and daughter he'd neglected during his years of carousing. And Bloss (William Forsythe), a biker who's certain the lawsuit from his accident will make him rich, is bothered more by the constant bellowing of a nearby head injury patient than by his own trauma.

These are the principal characters -- along with Joel's married girlfriend, Anna (Helen Hunt) -- and Jimenez doesn't demand that we pity them or grant them any privileged status. The interaction of the patients on the ward is the same as it might be if the men were thrown together in any other situation -- say, the same Army unit. Bloss is a racist who doesn't much like being shut up with blacks and Hispanics. And Ray, whose life doesn't quite measure up to his swaggering talk, sinks deeper into the bottle after he learns that his wife is leaving him.

They are, in other words, the problems of normal men; the chair plays a role, but not the only one. And the filmmakers' insistence on this normality only makes the characters' lives seem that much more mundane.

The cast does a serviceable job with the material it's given; still, no one really gets the chance to break out of the pack. Stoltz is a likable actor, and he's skilled at showing how Joel uses his sarcasm to vent his rage, especially at Anna, who happens to be the most convenient target. The lack of any real weight in his personality on screen seems to suit the filmmakers' purposes to the letter.

Hunt is impressively subtle too, as a married woman who began her affair with Joel before his accident, and now has to deal with this devastating new ingredient. But Snipes and Forsythe -- both of whom are gifted, magnetic performers -- are less vivid here than they have been in the past; they have their moments, but there aren't enough of them.

This is true of "The Waterdance" as a whole; it's an honorable, well-intentioned, but puzzlingly muted achievement -- a scattering of grace notes, but only a scattering.

"The Waterdance" is rated R for nudity and language.

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