No doubt moved by genuine affection for John Steinbeck, David S. Ward (who won an Oscar for his screenplay of "The Sting") has just resurfaced as the screenwriter and novice director of "Cannery Row."
Ward gamely attempts to contrive a romantic comedy from the hairline plot threads in "Cannery Row," published in 1945, and its sequel, "Sweet Thursday," which appeared a decade later. From the former he borrows the situation of Mack (M. Emmet Walsh) and his four derelict cronies organizing a surprise party for their esteemed, aloof neighbor Doc (Nick Nolte). A kindly marine biologist, Doc operates a lab in their corner of Cannery Row, a colorfully shabby waterfront district in Monterey, Calif. "Sweet Thursday" supplies the romantic motif: Mack and the boys conspire with Fauna (Audra Lindley), the local madam, and her girls to fix up Doc with Suzy (Debra Winger), a small-town pop-off who has drifted into the trade at Fauna's brothel, the Bear Flag Restaurant.
Their playful mismatch is also the shaggy-dog tale that holds the fleeting vignettes together, more or less. It isn't much, and the movie, opening today at area theaters, flounders. Putting across a slight sentimental ramble like "Cannery Row" demands an assurance with actors, tempo, atmosphere and period evocation that Ward doesn't possess.
Even a veteran director who had mastered a leisurely style and enjoyed exquisite rapport with his cast might have trouble with the original material. Steinbeck took a doting view of the eccentric lowlife inhabitants of Cannery Row. His misfits, outcasts, philosopher-bums and tarts become so insufferably "beguiling" that they seem to wink at you from the margins.
A lopsided proportion of the original vignettes fizzled on the page. Ward's miscalculations doom many of the others, notably the episode in which Doc decides to satisfy his strange curiosity to sample a beer milk shake. Ward leaves the scene dangling by misplacing a punchline. He has also added a few wrinkles that aggravate mawkish tendencies. For example, Doc is given a deep,dark secret calculated to underline his goodness. The hobo Hazel, as embodied by the enormously powerful character actor Frank McRae, is transformed into a pathetic embarrassment -- a feebleminded black man whose literalness leads him into gaucheries like attending a costume party as Abraham Lincoln after Fauna interprets his horoscope and predicts he'll be president some day.
Ward does well by one comic sequence of events: Mack and the boys trapping thousands of frogs on a night raid and then using their catch to barter with the local grocer (Santos Morales), for the goods needed to throw the party. These scenes really capture the robust wackiness of the original Steinbeck episodes.
More often than not technique fails Ward when he tries to reinforce the fleeting charms of the material with inventions of his own. For example, there's a promising sequence in which Doc and Suzy are meant to bury the hatchet by dancing impromptu in Fauna's parlor. The idea is that they wing a series of dance steps from the period, Ward having compressed the events of both books into a late '30s setting. Unfortunately, the camerawork and editing stiffen up at just the point where the movie ought to loosen up in a decisive way. It's apparent that Ward has a winning notion for a sequence, but he doesn't have the rhythmic assurance to depict it gracefully.
The most impressive pictorial feature is the spacious, elaborately detailed square block or so of Cannery Row erected on an MGM sound stage by production designer Richard MacDonald. It's an attraction in its own right; there's a cafe set so beautifully rendered that you can't blame the filmmakers for dawdling around to savor it from every flattering angle.
The dead giveaway that the movie has problems is the sound of John Huston intoning voice-over narration. Right from the start this overfamiliar omniscient voice suggests that the scenario must lack dramatic cohesion and momentum. So it does, but Huston doesn't supply what's missing. Neither do Nolte and Winger, who don't strike any sparks that catch fire. Apart from the excesses attached to Hazel, "Cannery Row" is expendable and creaky, a lavishly mounted antique.