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‘The Waterdance’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 15, 1992

"The Waterdance" is a welcome surprise. Usually, dramas about the wheelchair-bound (or the mute, or the blind, etc.) become falsely inspiring, TV movie-of-the-week triumphs. Although feelgood goosing is almost inevitable in a movie like this, screenwriter Neal Jimenez keeps it to a minimum.

This isn't about helpless, broken bodies. It's about angry people who can't get out of their chairs. It's also variously funny, serious and, given its subject matter, refreshingly unsentimental.

California writer Eric Stoltz awakens in a Christ-like crown-of-thorns head brace. He has just broken his neck in a hiking accident and his walking life is over. But he's not about to undergo therapy to "Rocky" theme-like music. He's going to hang loose and lonely at the Holbrook rehabilitation center, where the other patients -- including Wesley Snipes and William Forsythe -- have no time to feel sorry for anyone but themselves.

Initially, Stoltz is optimistically guarded. He's a writer, he figures. Being paralyzed won't affect his life. But his personal life is another matter. It turns out he has been seeing a married woman (Helen Hunt) and, in light of his new status, hardball questions have to be answered. Sooner or later, too, he'll have to react emotionally to his dependent lifestyle.

Jimenez (who co-directed with Michael Steinberg) makes the fragility of Stoltz's new existence tragicomically clear. When Stoltz is wheeled into the rehab center on a gurney, the camera switches to his helpless point of view -- the corridor ceiling, with the nurse's disembodied head hovering above.

"I'm a Stephen King man myself," says the nurse, after finding out Stoltz is a writer. "You like him?" "He's fast," allows Stoltz.

That fragility extends to everyone. The other patients cling to the flimsiest of beliefs. Snipes (rapidly becoming one of the screen's most satisfying performers) is the hero of his own loverboy anecdotes. Pudgy, racist biker Forsythe greedily anticipates the cash settlement he'll get for the traffic collision that paralyzed him.

At times, the scatological and humorous bantering (particularly between racial opposites Snipes and Forsythe) threatens to make this an R-rated sitcom. But Jimenez brings things down to depressing earth enough times to keep things from getting cutesy.

He also sows in some sensitive moments. At one point, Hunt has brought Stoltz a portable word processor. They communicate on it to maintain privacy in the crowded ward. We read their dialogue, as Stoltz rages jealously at Hunt for continuing to sleep with her husband. It's affecting on many levels because Stoltz, as a writer, can only communicate this way, and also because Jimenez suffered a similar fate to Stoltz in real life. It's also a nice writerly touch -- we are, in effect, reading the script to this movie.

The feeling at the end of "Waterdance" is not soaringly triumphant. It's more sober and ruminative. Stoltz isn't raising a fist in lame triumph -- caught in a freeze frame. He's just getting on with his life, the road before him unspectacular and unpromising, rather than falsely hopeful. In a genre as cliched as this, that's a more appropriate therapy.

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