There's a lot to admire in the film adaptation of Larry Ketron's play "Fresh Horses" (citywide), especially compared to most other recent American movies on young love. Ketron's dialogue is fresh, sad and funny; the film digs into American society more perceptively and compassionately than most.
It's a tangled tale of class-crossing passion between a rich Cincinnati boy (Andrew McCarthy) and a poor backwoods Kentucky girl (Molly Ringwald), and director David Anspaugh and cinematographer Fred Murphy (both of "Hoosiers") give it a very distinctive look: moody and poetic, grainy and wistful, drenched with a sad, faraway, forget-me-not drizzle of passion and regrets.
Yet, despite all the talent, this movie refuses to jell. "Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been. . . ." So it is with the love affair between engineering preppie Larkin and child-bride Jewel. And so it is with "Fresh Horses."
The movie makers try to give us the obsession and pain of a love affair cutting across class boundaries. It's l'amour fou between a mismatched pair who meet, rather puzzlingly, in a private backwoods roadhouse and descend into All That Heaven Allows and all that polite society won't.
But there's a Catch-22. Ringwald and McCarthy did another cross-class romance smashingly well in "Pretty in Pink," and their casting here probably got "Fresh Horses" made. Yet, as soon as they were cast, it was probably doomed. McCarthy is able to give us Larkin. He conveys intelligence and confusion, a well-meaning guy on the edge, caught in the snarls of lust and pity. But Ringwald can't give us Jewel.
Jewel is an enigmatic part, another Southern nymphet-earth mother, and the film probably needs a drop-dead knockout, a young Kim Basinger, to work right. Ringwald reaches out past herself, even gets a mellow back-country accent. But she projects too much urban intelligence; she also looks wrong. Decked out in frizzy red fall-away curls and a lacquered pout, she's never really convincing as a country girl or a femme fatale.
Ringwald's fortune as an actress is her wonderful transparency: that subtle, open face, which instantly shows a thought or feeling. But Jewel is a character who has to have mystery, primal sexual heat. She has to be a sweet, average girl whose body drives men wild; otherwise, you can't understand why Larkin would be so eager to throw his life away. Here, it's as if Jean Arthur had been cast as a mix of Lola in "The Blue Angel" and Darlin' Jill in "God's Little Acre."
There's another way the film makers could have made the sexual obsession explicable. They could have thrown out the film's current PG-13 rating and shown us more sex; then Ringwald's Jewel might have worked just fine. As it is now, "Fresh Horses" balks, cuts itself. In the end, you might even feel, incorrectly, that the whole story is a cautionary tale about how nice young rich boys should stay away from the lower classes and unlicensed roadhouses.
Still, there's a psychological and social density in this film that most movies today don't show--an appealing depth to the cast. Anspaugh gets here exactly what he didn't have, and could have used, in the otherwise admirable "Hoosiers": a large, diverse, richly drawn gallery of non-archetypal characters. Writer Ketron also has a pungent cameo as a drunken bully. Molly Hagan is a good come-hither preppie seductress. And Ziggo Mortensen shoots the movie up with five minutes of pure redneck menace as Jewel's rotten husband.
In a very good cast, the best performance is probably by McCarthy's sidekick, Ben Stiller, as Larkin's buddy Tipton: a letter-perfect Reagan-era adolescent. Stiller's Tipton is acquisitive, happy-go-lucky, bright-faced, sexually sneaky, instinctively conscious of all the fences of class and culture made for him and Larkin to frolic over in the dark.
If all of "Fresh Horses" were as on target as Stiller's and McCarthy's best moments, the movie probably could have leaped over its own fences, blazed away in that sexy borderland between patrician duty and just-folks desire.