Film- The Big Picture: It's great to be straight

THE STRAIGHT STORY (U)

DIRECTOR: DAVID LYNCH

STARRING: RICHARD FARNSWORTH, EVERETT MCGILL, SISSY SPACEK

111 MINS

ANYWHERE BUT HERE (12)

DIRECTOR: WAYNE WANG

STARRING: SUSAN SARANDON,

NATALIE PORTMAN

110 MINS

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) isn't in good shape. He needs sticks to help him walk, his sight is failing, and his doctor reckons he's in the early stages of emphysema. He's an old man, "born when Coolidge was President of America", as his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) reminds him. But he's a stubborn old bird, too, and when he hears that his estranged brother, Lyle, has had a stroke, Alvin is determined to pay him a sick- call. The journey, from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt Zion, Wisconsin, is close to 300 miles, but that's not going to stop him: he'll just get on his lawnmower, a John Deere '66, and drive there.

That the film is based on a true story is worth remarking. That it's a film by David Lynch is enough to make you choke on your doughnut. What, no severed ears, no helium-gobbling psychopaths, no dancing dwarves? Can this really be David Lynch, Sultan of Strange? Yes, it can, and given that this is a film-maker who has founded a career on the outlandish and the unpredictable, perhaps we ought not be so surprised. Honouring the pun of its title, this movie gives it to us straight, unvarnished by the fashionable resins of irony and parody.

Straight, but not necessarily straightforward. This being a road movie, we should be prepared for digressions and stopovers. What's more, with that road being covered at approximately five miles an hour on Alvin's lawnmower, there's plenty of time to admire the scenery - not since Easy Rider has the burnished, autumnal landscape of mid-America been brought so rapturously alive. (The cinematography is by British veteran Freddie Francis.) Lynch even makes a joke of his hero's unscintillating pace. The camera, filming Alvin's progress from behind, swings up to survey the glorious horizon overhead, then looks back down - to find Alvin at almost the identical point where we left him.

Lynch hasn't abandoned quirkiness altogether, of course. Among the people Alvin encounters en route is a distraught woman whose car keeps hitting deer on the highway ("And I love deer!" she wails) and the twin mechanics whose bickering allows Alvin to whittle down the repair charges on his wheezing lawnmower. Elsewhere, a homiletic spirit prevails as he gives the benefit of his wisdom to a pregnant teenage runaway, or a bunch of cyclists who've whipped past him on the road earlier that day.

The cornball philosophising would probably grate were it not for Richard Farnsworth's weathered presence, his mournfully rheumy eyes and contemplative pauses suggesting a life which hasn't always enjoyed such tranquillity. Indeed, the most affecting scene in the film involves Alvin and a fellow Second World War veteran talking quietly in a bar, recalling the indiscriminate slaughter of young men that haunts them 50 years on.

Hard-core Lynch fans, the ones who thrilled to Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, may find themselves a tad impatient with the measured, reflective rhythm of The Straight Story. Even non-Lynchites may be bemused by the idea of a doddery 73-year-old geezer inching his way along the roadside while supertankers thunder monstrously by. Yet there's something irresistible about its heart-warming belief in American decency, its assumption that, even this late in the century, there's always a welcome for folks just passing through. Salute David Lynch, mild at heart.

There's a moment in the film when Alvin shows a young woman a bunch of twigs bound together. "That's family," he tells her. Show that to Ann August (Natalie Portman), stroppy adolescent heroine of Anywhere But Here, and she'd probably snort and say that it reminded her of The Blair Witch Project. Ann is reluctant companion to her scatty, wilful and insanely optimistic mother Adele (Susan Sarandon), who's decided to leave their home in Wisconsin and head for the glittering promise of Beverly Hills. Once they get there, the promise soon tarnishes. Mother and daughter continue bickering through a succession of crummy one-bedroom apartments and dead- end jobs. "We did not come to Beverly Hills to struggle," says Adele determinedly, just before the electricity gives out - another forgotten bill - and they're plunged into darkness.

Adapted from Mona Simpson's novel, the film proceeds in a plotless, haphazard fashion. I had a slight dread of it, having found Wayne Wang's previous adaptation of a women-together novel, The Joy Luck Club, almost insufferable in its lachrymosity. True, the tears flow pretty freely here, but the frenzy of unhappiness which Sarandon and Portman stir up together is that bit more credible, and far less ingratiating.

Wearing her Thelma and Louise shades and overbright lipstick, Sarandon really takes to the role of the woman who loves not wisely but too well, and her fling with a hunky orthodontist ("He's more than just a dentist - he's writing a screenplay!") is painful in the way its doom is apparent to everyone but her.

As for Natalie Portman, she's miraculous as Ann, grudgingly compelled to play mother to Adele's flighty romantic. There is still something gawky and heartbreaking about her presence, which Ted Demme was the first to locate in Beautiful Girls and George Lucas almost managed to eclipse in his dreadful Phantom Menace. I pity her the necessity of struggling through the next two Star Wars instalments, but if the directness of her gaze and the confidence of her demeanour are anything to go by, she'll be strong enough to cope. She's amazingly watchable here, making tippy-toes progress towards sexual initiation and emotional independence, while never straining the effect by trying to be too knowing. Anywhere But Here is familial drama served up with extra hugs and lessons, and caught in the wrong mood you might just hate it. But it got to me.

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