In "Violets Are Blue," Gussie Sawyer (Sissy Spacek) returns to her home town of Ocean City a conquering hero. They knew her as a schoolgirl and a waitress; she left to become an airline stewardess. But there's nothing a woman can't do if she has gumption. Instamatic snapshots in airline magazines led to bigger things (as we learn in the "movin'-on-up" montage); now, she's a famous photojournalist in the Paris bureau of Newsweek.
But she returns, not just to her parents, not just to the sun and surf and boardwalk and Ferris wheel, but to a set of choices she didn't make. She's living the life she and her old flame, Henry Squires (Kevin Kline), used to dream about, only Henry is now firmly planted in Ocean City, editor of the little local paper, with a wife (Bonnie Bedelia) who goes to rummage sales, a son, a house with a porch. She covers civil wars; he covers the condominium developers who want to despoil the Eastern Shore. She envies him. He envies her. Can they recapture the past?
Director Jack Fisk began his career as a production designer, and together with cinematographer Ralf Bode he's given "Violets Are Blue" a lived-in look. Except for the way light is used to set Spacek apart from the rest of the scene, and a nervous habit of dollying the camera in exclamation, "Violets Are Blue" is unobtrusively pleasant to watch, especially when you're simply relaxing with a close-up of Spacek or Kline, who look great just beaming away at each other. Yet that's much of the problem with "Violets Are Blue" -- it's too darn genial, and never anything more than that. The relationship could use a little Tracy-and-Hepburn crackle and crust, a little more bitterness over what's been lost, a little less apology. And Kline, who started out as a brilliant New York stage comedian, could use some opportunities to make use of his comic timing, his nonpareil physical flair. He's better than his milk-and-water smile, yet that seems to have become the signature of the roles he's relegated to.
Instead of comedy, Fisk and screenwriter Naomi Foner substitute a train of cutesy devices: Henry sees Gussie for the first time in a sailing race, and his catamaran tips over; "Don't slam the screen door" (he slams the screen door); Henry correcting everyone's pronouns. The drama in "Violets Are Blue" is flagged -- you know that the Suffering Wife (a role Bedelia struggles to give some dimension to) won't be made to suffer too much. There are no surprises in the story, although you keep hoping for them -- "Violets Are Blue" makes "Twice in a Lifetime," for all its egregious incompetence, seem like an act of courage.
"Violets Are Blue" pretends to be about choices, the kind of choices you'd find on "Donahue" -- career versus home, ecology versus development -- but it never makes those choices felt in any profound way. As "The River" followed "Places in the Heart" and now "Violets Are Blue" follows "Murphy's Romance," Spacek seems bent on making the same movies Sally Field makes, only worse. It's easy to applaud Spacek, an actress who, in a long career, has never for a moment seemed unnatural. It's not so easy to applaud her choice of roles.
Violets Are Blue, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains sexual themes.