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‘Love Field’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 12, 1993

When Lurene lost her baby, it was Jackie who got her through it. She'd become overwhelmed with sadness and then she'd think about what Jackie was doing, about the baby that she had lost, and her strength and her class. Somehow, imagining that they were going through the same ordeal gave Lurene the will to carry on. They were soul mates, she thought, united by a common devastation.

The Jackie of Lurene's fantasies is Jackie Kennedy. And so in November 1963, when the president and Jackie come to her hometown of Dallas, Lurene heads for Love Field to meet their plane, determined to make personal contact with the couple of her dreams. If she could just touch them, she thinks ...

But she doesn't, and soon the dream is gone forever -- for Lurene and the rest of the country as well.

What happens that day in Dallas and in the days following is the subject of Jonathan Kaplan's honorable but lumpy new film, "Love Field." Michelle Pfeiffer plays Lurene, a misunderstood bottle blonde who lives mostly in a world of her own, primarily because she has never found a comfortable place in the real world.

Pfeiffer's characterization of Lurene is a marvel, but by now that is only to be expected. Watching her discover new facets of her talent is one of the real pleasures of going to the movies these days. Done up with a '60s platinum bouffant and butterfly fake eyelashes, Pfeiffer plays Lurene as a big-hearted, motor-mouth ditz. But, even in the movie's earliest scenes, Pfeiffer suggests that Lurene has hidden depth; not unrevealed smarts, really, but innate decency and guilelessness.

When the president is shot, Lurene feels compelled to go to his funeral. Of course her husband (Brian Kerwin) thinks this is just another one of her harebrained schemes. Can't she just watch it on TV like everyone else? But he just doesn't understand. She needs to be there, to help Jackie get through her trauma, the way Jackie helped her. And so she packs her bags and boards a Greyhound headed east.

It soon becomes clear how naive Lurene is about the world outside her protective middle-class white bubble. On the bus, she meets a black man who tells her his name is Johnson (Dennis Haysbert); he is traveling back home to Philadelphia with his 5-year-old daughter (Stephanie McFadden). Immediately she begins babbling on to both of them. She treats them just the way she would anyone else, without seeming to notice that they are black and she is white, and that there are strict rules concerning such things.

Working from Don Roos's spotty script, Kaplan does a skillful job in these early scenes of capturing the tension that crackles around these supposedly innocent exchanges. Johnson assumes (and for good reason) that Lurene is just another stupid, useless white woman. When she mentions that Kennedy "has done so much for your people," he can only roll his eyes. He knows she is trouble, and so do the other black folks on the bus, who cluck with disapproval. But Lurene keeps on coming on, yakking away, completely oblivious.

Up to this point, the movie is sluggish but engaging, largely because of Pfeiffer's effervescent energy and crack comic timing. But when the bus becomes involved in an accident, the picture starts to wobble out of control. In the following scenes, Lurene's big mouth gets Mr. Johnson -- whose real name, it turns out, is Cater, and who has kidnapped his daughter from an abusive orphanage -- into trouble with the cops.

Kaplan (who directed "The Accused") has trouble finding the right rhythm for his story. As Lurene and Cater hit the road to escape from the police, the movie seems to lurch forward, stalling almost as often as the broken-down auto Cater has stolen to make their getaway.

The movie's most damaging flaw, though, is that Haysbert's character is woefully underwritten. Though his taciturn reserve is appropriate for the time, the script doesn't allow us to know much about him beyond the downtrodden strength and dignity he silently projects. He's too turned in on himself, and, as a result, the character never becomes anything more than an idealized portrait of a good black man.

For this reason, the interracial love affair that develops between this oddly matched pair never makes much sense. It's feasible that they would become friends, yes, but lovers? Kaplan just hasn't given us the scenes that might prepare us, and the actors never get to develop the chemistry necessary to make the affair work, either.

Haysbert, a great-looking, relatively unknown young actor with immense presence and confidence, suffers the most from these deficiencies. He's forced to build a character out of nothing (or worse, out of racial cliches), and it's a tribute to the sheer force of his personality that he's able to make an impression at all.

The movie belongs almost entirely to Pfeiffer, partly by default but largely by the sheer vivacity of her emotions. Pfeiffer has become one of those transparent actors, a performer who allows us direct access to her character's thoughts and feelings. This character is simply another in her wide-ranging gallery of vivid, complex women. She's fully alive up there on the screen: a grounded angel, tarnished, funny and exquisitely soulful, even when the movie is dead.

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