Friday October 15, 1999
The equivalent of David Lynch doing "Little House on the Prairie," "The Straight Story" is a suspect enterprise for the creator of "Twin Peaks" and "Lost Highway." Can the Wizard of Weird successfully direct a heartwarming G-rated Disney film based on the true story of a cantankerous codger who wants to ride his lawn mower into another state? Finally, he can't, but Richard Farnsworth makes it a very near thing.
Now 79, in pictures since 1937 (though mostly as a rider and stunt man until the 1970s), Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar for "Comes a Horseman" and won awards for "The Grey Fox," but this part is the role of a lifetime. Acclaimed at Cannes, it likely would have won Farnsworth the best actor prize if a sane jury (instead of the psychotic one masterminded by director David Cronenberg) had been in place.
Playing 73-year-old Alvin Straight (hence the too-cute title), Farnsworth is exactly right as a stubborn old-timer who's not about to let anyone tell him what to do. His dignified yet irascible performance is characterized by complete and effortless integrity, something the film otherwise has in uncertain supply.
For though the Montana-born Lynch (working from a fake-folksy script by John Roach and Mary Sweeney) takes a stab at being one with the film's four-square Midwesterners, "The Straight Story" is too mannered and weird around the edges to be convincing. Add in a tendency to turn Straight into the Ann Landers of the Open Road, and the film needs every inch of Farnsworth's considerable presence to keep our respect.
When Alvin Straight is first seen, he's more concerned with getting up from having fallen on the kitchen floor than getting on the open road. A feisty enemy of tests, X-rays, operations and all things medical, he visits the doctor only under protest and doesn't enjoy being reminded about his bad hips, failing eyesight and circulation problems. Determined to be independent, Alvin would rather use two canes than submit to a walker.
Living with his adult daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), a maker of birdhouses who's considered "a little slow" by fellow residents of Laurens, Iowa, Alvin's idea of a big time is hanging out with his quartet of codger pals or getting on his ancient Rheds mower and attacking the lawn.
Then Rose gets the news that Alvin's brother Lyle, who lives 370 miles away in Mt. Zion, Wis., has had a stroke. Though the two brothers have not spoken in 10 years, Alvin feels he simply has to visit. There's no one to drive him, and no direct bus service, but Alvin is not the type to be deterred. "I'm not dead yet," he reminds Rose and, in a plan that dumbfounds his cronies, he decides to make the trip on his lawn mower pulling a trailer for sleeping and supplies behind him.
That proves a trickier proposition than Alvin anticipated, but soon enough he is on the road. Lynch made a point of filming "The Straight Story" along the same route that the real-life Straight took back in 1994, and veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis (who previously worked with the director on "The Elephant Man" and "Dune") makes the Lawnmower Man's quirky progress through pleasant rural vistas one of the film's most successful aspects.
(It's worth noting that "The Straight Story" is kind of a family project for the Lynch filmmaking clan. Co-screenwriter Sweeney is Lynch's business and personal partner; actress Spacek is married to production designer Jack Fisk, a friend of Lynch's since college; and composer Angelo Badalamenti has scored numerous Lynch projects.
Less appealing, unless you have a taste for bogus homilies and contrived folk wisdom, is the way Straight, when he's not saying down-home things like "I wasn't worth a stick of stove wood," seems to know just how to solve the problems of the people young and old he meets by the side of the road. He tells a young runaway how difficult it is to break even thin sticks when they're tied in a bundle, solemnly adding "that bundle of sticks, that's family." And he benignly lectures a pair of feuding twins about the importance of sibling friendship. There's not much in this life a few words from Alvin can't set straight, so to speak.
As noted, Farnsworth is so invested in this role that we buy into him no matter what kind of nonsense he's saying. The rest of "The Straight Story," however, suffers from an inability to decide what kind of an attitude it's going to take toward its material.
While Farnsworth would be right at home in a genuinely earnest and honestly sentimental effort like Joe Johnson's "October Sky," the rest of what's on the screen would not. For despite its gee-whiz dialogue, the film can't live without classic Lynch oddities like sinister grain silos, an overweight sunbather carefully eating pink Sno Balls, and a woman who seems primed to set a local record for number of deer hit by a single driver. There's nothing wrong with touches like these--Lynch used them brilliantly in "Blue Velvet"--but they clash with, rather than enhance, the kind of feeling Farnsworth is working so hard to convey.
The Straight Story, 1999. G. Released by Buena Vista Pictures. Director David Lynch. Producers Mary Sweeney, Neal Edelstein. Executive producers Pierre Edelman, Michael Polaire. Screenplay John Roach & Mary Sweeney. Cinematographer Freddie Francis. Editor Mary Sweeney. Costumes Patricia Norris. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Production design Jack Fisk. Set decorator Barbara Haberecht. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight. Sissy Spacek as Rose Straight. Harry Dean Stanton as Lyle Straight.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times