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‘True Stories’ (PG)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1986

"True Stories," the first movie from rock star David Byrne (he is star, director, composer and cowriter), is a cinematic version of the sort of "human interest" stories you find in supermarket tabloids.

Narrated by Byrne, who wanders through the movie with the cartoonish black cowboy hat and string ties of an outsider who is more "Texan" than the Texans themselves, "True Stories" takes place in the fictional town of Virgil, which is honoring the Lone Star sesquicentennial with a "Celebration of Specialness," including a small-town parade (complete with a lawn mower brigade) and a talent show that comprises the movie's climax.

As scripted by Byrne, Stephen Tobolowsky and playwright Beth Henley, "True Stories" has a ragged, anecdotal structure, focusing primarily on the lives of three misfits: Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a man desperate to get married; the Lazy Woman (Swoosie Kurtz), so languorous she never gets out of bed; and Earl Culver (Spalding Gray), the local Babbitt, who lives with his wife but hasn't spoken to her in years.

As with the rest of the people in "True Stories," these aren't characters, but character traits, barely inventive enough to support sketch comedy. And when it comes to orchestrating them, Byrne and his cohorts can come up with nothing better than lowbrow humor -- making Gray the concertmaster of a sort of food fight, or tossing in (I kid you not) a flatulence joke.

"True Stories" is united not by narrative, but by Byrne's sensibility, and this is where it descends from being a boring piece of whimsy into something reprehensible. For "True Stories" isn't about the South, but SoHo. As Byrne wanders through his grating faux naif narration, you discover that the way he's assembled the artifacts of the heartland, the blue hair and TV commercials and tacky clothing, the quaint and eccentric, is nothing but a joyless exercise in newspaper clipping.

Byrne makes no connection with these people -- he simply finds them interesting for reasons that tell you more about his own alienation than about anyone's true stories. That's why Virgil never seems like a real place -- it's more like a used-clothing store of the mind.

Byrne seems to be aware of his own detachment, and in his music, he's been able to draw on sounds rooted in real life to combat his sterility. The sound track, a combination of dance music, Latin rhythms, fake Philip Glass and lounge jazz, is fine. But in the age of compact discs, records and cassettes, there are at least three ways to listen to Byrne's music less painful than watching it.

"True Stories" contains some mild profanity.

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