In Louis Malle's "Alamo Bay," the livelihood of Texas shrimp fishermen is threatened by an influx of Vietnamese immigrants who trawl alongside them. This is the theme of last fall's country movies -- a way of life toppled by changing times -- but Malle doesn't sentimentalize these people the way "Country" or "The River" did. In fact, there's an off-putting snobbishness to the way this aristocratic Frenchman tweaks Texans for their racism and small-mindedness; still, it's better than patronizing them with gingham poetry.
For Malle, small-town chauvinism is the last refuge of a moron. Shang (Ed Harris) is a bully and a failure; back in high school, he lost the girl, Glory (Amy Madigan), and now he loses "American Dream Girl," his boat, to the repo man. Dinh (Ho Nguyen), one of the Vietnamese, is struggling to buy his own boat; he chums up with Glory who, as "the new fish-house mama" buys his daily catch. This further galls the already bilious Shang, who allies with the Ku Klux Klan to run the Vietnamese out of town.
There's a lot of talk in "Alamo Bay" about "doing what my daddy did" and "this is where my people are buried," and there's even a foreclosure scene. What's nice about this is the way Malle goes beyond it, exploring the way people use these myths to shield themselves from their own inadequacy. Harris smolders behind a big, threatening firethorn bush of a beard, whose very size makes his features seem pinched and ungenerous -- he has a great smallness. Instead of admitting that he just can't hack it, he and his redneck cohort blame the banks, the government, Catholics, communists and particularly the "gooks."
With her china-doll features, Madigan looks like a debutante, but she acts just like the trashy, good ol' gal that Glory is, all lust and throaty laughter, projecting a sexual heat as focused and white-hot as a welder's torch. There's a leathery toughness to Madigan here; as she rips off lines like "If your jaw should ever break, I'd love to wire it shut," her own jaw closes up like a 12-ounce glove -- it might as well read "Everlast." She believes in Shang's American dream, but she believes in Dinh's also, the "every man a millionaire" version. In "Alamo Bay," it's not a question of the American dream being corrupted, but of competing American dreams jostling each other in the hurly-burly of national life.
"Alamo Bay" has the makings of a big, stylish western -- its moral outline is the same as "High Noon" -- but Malle doesn't play it that way; he's after a sociological realism, and the movie has an enervated, documentary feel. It's drawn from a New York Times Magazine article, but the reality is whitewashed. In real life, the fracas began when a Vietnamese, fed up with the bullying, murdered one of the Texas fishermen. Through Malle's prism, Dinh is a saint; crowing "In America everyone want to be rich!," he's the cheeriest capitalist this side of the American Enterprise Institute. The movie needs less Mr. Smith, more Sammy Glick.
Alamo Bay, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity in sexual situations, profanity and some violence.