An enema of the people

The US found Alan Parker's Road to Wellville unpalatable. It may be mo re to British tastes says Sheila Johnston Satire is not a mode with which US audiences are very comfortable
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The Independent Culture
We have lost the good habit of masticating and ruminating our movies. We want blood, we want beefcake, above all we want - outside the arthouse circuit, at least - fast, quickly digestible pleasures, not cranky comedies about nuts and fruitcakes.It's our loss. Alan Parker's The Road to Wellville is definitely an acquired taste, but not a wholly unpalatable one. Anthony Hopkins plays a character loosely based on Dr John Harvey Kellogg, the health pioneer and inventor of such small food classics as the cornflakeand peanut butter, as well as some more dubious signature dishes. Clearly something of a prize flake in his own right, he is also the author of a regimen based on the liberal administration of five-gallon enemas of Bulgarian yoghurt.

The great strength of the film, magnificently designed (by Brian Morris), is the evocation of Hopkins's "San": a vast brass and wood mausoleum crammed with Heath Robinsonian health aids, most of them painful and some downright life-threatening, like a sinister contraption which adminsters electric shocks to your privates while you soak in a nice hot bath.

Parker has thickly peopled this place with an army of grotesques worthy of a Rowlandson cartoon, most of them highly eccentric (the principle of mens sana in corpore sano doesn't apply here), spearheaded by Hopkins's good doctor: a striking figure who, dapper in bowtie, goatee, blinding white suits and (quite possibly fake) Southern accent, bears a curious resemblance to the fast-food king Colonel Sanders.

Hopkins plies his trade with sloganising zeal and a deft way with metaphor: "The tongue is the billboard of the bowels!"; "We are lifeguards on the shores of the alimentary canal!"; "An erection is a flagpole on your grave!" He could as well hang up banners proclaiming: "No pain, no gain!" Based on a 1992 novel by T Coraghessen Boyle, the film has contemporary resonances impossible to ignore, although it wisely doesn't press too hard its parallels with the aerobics addicts of Beverly Hills and the colonic irrigators of St James's.

The crusade is prosecuted with a mix of fundamentalist religious fervour and naked greed. Battle Creek, the town where the San is situated, is well-named: it's a rough-and-tumble pioneer outpost where squads of breakfast-food cowboys slug it out for the right to colonise, as it were, the bowels of the nation. "Health! The Open Sesame to the sucker's purse!" proclaims Michael Lerner, the biggest get-rich-quick merchant of the lot.

Parker's screenplay plies three subplots, but only occasionally pulls them together. There is the arrival in town of a naive young shyster (John Cusack), who hopes, with Lerner, to found a cornflake empire, no matter that he has not the faintest idea howto manufacture the things. There is the visit to the San of a wan young couple (Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick) with a truckload of psychological and sexual dysfunctions. And there is Hopkins's stormy relationship with his filthy, rebellious adopted son (Dana Carvey), a feud which the film - unlike the book - eventually resolves in the most craven of sops to Hollywood happy endings.

Parker has a lot on his plate, then, and one can sometimes feel the film straining at the seams - as in Fonda's long speeches explicating her husband's problems - to accommodate all these stories. And just as often, on the other hand, one senses that he has taken his foot off the gas, content for the film to coast along happily on the bizarre individuals, gadgets and incidents at the San.

The least successful storyline is the Hopkins-Carver one, mainly because of the paradoxes in the Kellogg character. He's conceived as a naive, bufoonish zealot, a tragicomic victim of biological determinism - his vegetarianism a result of his peculiar herbivorous teeth, all Bugs Bunny incisors and no canines; his obsession with sexual abstinence inspired (detractors claim) by a childhood bout of mumps which left him impotent.

He could be a living illustration of the anal-retentive personality: in one scene fragrant with Freudian insinuations, he compares his own stools, which are "large", nay "magnificent", to Broderick's pathetic offering. It's a strange role for Hopkins, anactor who specialises in sensitive, introspective characters; he remains unable to give this broad caricature the psychological depth that would make his volte-face towards his son dramatically credible.

In the States, The Road to Wellville proved a dead end: it garnered some noxious reviews and a puny $6.5m at the box-office. I think this has something to do with the film's sardonic vision of the American way of capitalism; its frenetic pursuit of fads and fancies and one-track-minded obsessions (one character is actually praised as a "wonderful fanatic").

It guys that distinctive blend of prurience and puritanism. The sexual pioneers and charlatans in the film - louche Dr Spitzvogel, who administers therapeutic "womb massage" while singing Lieder; Lionel Badger, the Irish clitoris expert (Colm Meaney); anadvocate of nudism, unfortunately named Professor Kuntz (the humour can be on the coarse side); the unnamed inventor of the redoubtable Dusselberg Belt and the dryly humorous Englishman (John Neville) who introduces Broderick to its pleasures - are all non-Americans. And, not least, it nails the national fear of death - in a neat gag at the film's end, Parker freeze-frames Kellogg in the nano-second of his untimely demise, conceding him a brief celluloid immortality.

Satire is not a mode with which US audiences are especially comfortable; and films with this edge (Stephen Frears's Accidental Hero, for instance, or Robert Redford's Quiz Show or Barry Levinson's Jimmy Hollywood) often prove box-office casualties. The Road to Wellville is not altogether successful; but, like its hero, it's possessed of an awesome oddity that is finally rather endearing. In an era of Big Mac movies, the occasional nut cutlet can come as a tonic relief.

n `The Road to Wellville' opens Friday