"Honkytonk Man," now at area theaters, is Clint Eastwood's second fiasco of the year -- the first, of course, being "Firefox." A more modest, down-to-earth disappointment than "Firefox," it benefits from a fair amount of incidental entertainment value, much of it supplied by a distinctive and often humorous supporting cast.
The scenario is tragicomic rattletrap adapted by Clancy Carlile from his own novel with apologetic borrowing from Faulkner, Steinbeck, Caldwell and Woody Guthrie.
The picaresque story follows a tubercular, ne'er-do-well country & western singer named Red Stovall as he travels from Oklahoma to Nashville in 1938, hoping to keep an audition date with the Grand Ole Opry that has eluded him throughout a checkered career. A drunk of perilous driving skills, Red persuades his sister Emmy (Verna Bloom) to lend him her steady 14-year-old son, Whit (played by Kyle Eastwood, the star's son), to pilot his vehicle, a 1937 Lincoln. Whit's paternal grandfather, played by John McIntire, also joins the trip.
As that handsome vintage touring car cruises toward its destination, the movie evokes hit-and-miss memories of the appealing bucolic comedy of "The Reivers" and the Depression-era pathos of "Bound for Glory." During a brief stopover, gramps gets a wistful monologue recalling his boyhood participation in the Oklahoma Land Rush that sounds very much like ersatz but harmlessly digestible Steinbeck. None of these moods really imposes itself in a fresh or beguiling way, and Eastwood's timing is frequently haywire, especially when staging and editing the facetious interludes. Nevertheless, the movie doesn't seem exactly bad. It's got possibilities, and when Alexa Kenin enters in the role of a small-town girl with singing ambitions of her own and Barry Corbin contributes a funny characterization as a con artist Eastwood has been trying to pin down for years, the possibilities seem to be on the verge of realization.
Unfortunately, Eastwood doesn't seem to have a reliable idea of what works and what doesn't, so not even the promising elements are sustained. For example, Kenin probably has sufficient energy to carry the movie, but her character is given the brushoff just as you start to warm to her. Eastwood has sprinkled the cast with vivid supporting players, but ultimately the movie depends on his ability to play a kind of country & western Camille, and this tearjerking challenge proves beyond his range and a viewer's credulity.
There's something in Eastwood's makeup that defies the idea of a vulnerable, destructible identity. Having made steely indomitability his specialty, it's not easy to scale down to flesh-and-blood sentimentality. However, it's possible that Eastwood might still have put the characterization across if his vanity had permitted him an absolutely essential enhancement to the role--let somebody else do the singing when Red has to perform.
There is nothing so disillusioning about Clint Eastwood as that frail -- dare one say wimpy? -- vocal instrument he's stuck with. Red is the sort of guy whose voice ought to be full of deep, harsh, whiskey-soaked resonances, but whenever Eastwood presumes to sing, some little pipsqueak of a sound insists on coming out to play. The difference an effective dub might have made is underlined in a recording studio sequence in which Red's consumptive cough forces him to the sidelines and the number-in-progress is completed by a backup singer, played by the late Marty Robbins, one of several authentic country vocalists who turn up in the course of the show.
For all its other miscalculations, "Honkytonk Man" might have emerged as a rabble-rousing heart-tugger if the leading role were played by a genuine singer. That indispensable resource could have covered a multitude of defects by assuring the movie an undeniable lyric force and authenticity. With Eastwood as Red, the crucial element is also the least authentic. There's a sequence at a small-town bordello where Whit is supposed to enjoy his sexual initiation, and one of the girls quips, "Bring him back when his voice changes."
In the last analysis that remark comes back to haunt Clint Eastwood. graphics /photo: Clint Eastwood in "Honkytonk Man"