What could be a more treacherous genre for film makers than rural contemporary Americana?
Honest, modest movies about bronco busters (“J.W. Coop”), country-and-Western singers (“Payday”) and dirt racers (“Corky”) have almost invariably had a hard time at the box office, and rarely do the majors know how to market them in the first place--remember the travails surrounding the release of “Heart Like a Wheel”?
Consequently, it’s not surprising that Universal had left “Uforia” on the shelf since 1981. What do you do with a sweet little off-the-beaten-track movie with a whimsical flying saucer angle--and a finish that had the misfortune to be all too much like that of “Close Encounters” (and now, alas, “Cocoon”)? Nevertheless, “Uforia,” which once bore the very literal title “Hold On to Your Dreams,” has at last surfaced for a week’s run beginning Wednesday at the Nuart. If anything, it seems even more fun than it did when it was shown at Filmex last year.
“Uforia” brings together in a small desert town dreamy supermarket cashier Cindy Williams, sexy drifter Fred Ward and Ward’s pal, phony tent evangelist Harry Dean Stanton. Ward has no trouble making a dent in Williams’ born-again morals, but there’s no way he can prevent her from believing in flying saucers, which she insists brought Jesus to Earth. (Adam and Eve, she is certain, were astronauts.)
As she experiences--or is it “imagines"--one vision after another, Williams becomes convinced that she’s the new Noah who will lead the true believers into a space ship; Stanton, a dead-eyed cynic, wastes no time in figuring ways to exploit this innocent.
Caught between the two is Ward, and “Uforia” really belongs to him.
On the one hand is Stanton, persuading him to haul hot cars over the state line; on the other hand is Williams, with whom Ward is falling in love in spite of his footloose ways--and despite his inability to go along with her beliefs. Yet in coming to believe in her, if not in her visions, he comes to believe in himself. Maybe he can, after all, become a country singer like his idol, Waylon Jennings. (Composer Richard Baskin has woven into his apt score many country standards, including several by Jennings.) But will his dreams coincide with hers? And what of the plans Stanton has for cashing in on Williams?
Writer-director John Binder makes us concerned about the answers because we care so much about Ward and Williams. Binder wrote the original draft for “North Dallas Forty,” the final rewrite for “Honeysuckle Rose” and collaborated with Alan Rudolph on “Endangered Species,” so it’s not surprising that he’s brought crucial dimensions and detailing to his own film. He allows you to take amused pleasure in such a throwaway detail as the silly, demeaning theme costumes worn by Williams and her fellow cashiers (including a spacey Darrell Larson, so well-remembered from “Mike’s Murder”). One day it’s Hawaiian shirts and leis, another ponchos and sombreros.
Williams manages to be adorable and never seems all-out crazy; like Ward, you do believe in her, whether or not you believe in UFOs.
Ward, shaggy-haired and bearded, is a revelation. His Gus Grissom in “The Right Stuff” was just fine, but here he shows he’s a star with charisma to spare. There’s a wonderful moment when he looks approvingly at himself in a mirror as he tries on a splendid new cowboy shirt and tells himself that for once it’s Waylon who looks like him . Ward shows us the humor in this display of peacock pride, just as Burt Reynolds has always been smart enough to do.
Stanton hasn’t as much to do as you would wish, but he’s a joy in his electric-blue polyester, working his crowds of believers. As he points out to Ward, his followers sometimes can actually heal themselves by believing in him even if he admits privately to being a fraud. Belief and its importance is what “Uforia” is all about.
A Universal release of a Melvin Simon production. Executive producers Simon, Barry Krost. Producer Gordon Wolf. Writer-director John Binder. Co-producer Susan Spinks. Camera David Myers. Music Richard Baskin. Production designer William Malley. Associate producer Jeanne Field. Film editor Dennis M. Hill. With Cindy Williams, Harry Dean Stanton, Fred Ward, Beverly Hope Atkinson, Harry Carey Jr., Diane Diefendorf, Ted Harris, Darrell Larson, Peggy McKay, Hank Worden, Alan Beckwith.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (some parental guidance advised).