True or False: Thelma & Louise Just Good Ol' Boys? : For all its craftsmanship, the Ridley Scott film is just a high-toned 'Smokey and the Bandit' with a downbeat ending and a woman at the wheel.

CRITIC AT LARGE

Call "Thelma & Louise" anything you want but please don't call it feminism , as some writers are already doing. As I understand it, feminism has to do with responsibility, equality, sensitivity, understanding--not revenge, retribution, or sadistic behavior. It's not "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" with women, either, although its actresses certainly exert an equal magnetism.

For all the sleekness of its production, for all the delicacy of the performances by Susan Sarandon (especially) and Geena Davis, for all of director Ridley Scott's visual improvements on Monument Valley, "Thelma & Louise" is high-toned "Smokey and the Bandit" with a downbeat ending and a woman at the wheel.

Heaven knows it aspires to more. Over and over, in the long-lens, supra-reality of its images, we're given hints that these women on the run are a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. (Peter Rainer has sketched the story to my left, so there's no need to duplicate it here.)

But see those weathered faces staring straight at the camera from behind a cracked and dusty window or a rotting door screen? Americana. Dorothea Lange. Outlaws on the run. As Susan Sarandon's Louise drives farther into the desert, the pioneer motif is unavoidable; her tied-down hat even suggests a covered-wagon bonnet.

I suspect there is a substantial audience that would welcome strong, smart women at the center of a movie. Sarandon and Davis have even played them, in "White Palace" and "The Accidental Tourist," respectively. Those were stubborn women who held out for their own needs, not victims with no choice left but some specious idea of freedom , which in this case equals death.

You wouldn't even have to stack the deck, the way new screenwriter Callie Khouri has, and make all the men cartoons. As audiences have known from the days of Nick and Nora Charles, through Margo Channing and her Bill, Charlie Allnutt and his Rosie and all the pictures Katharine Hepburn played with Spencer Tracy, sparks between equally matched characters are the best fireworks. But only the women are matched in "Thelma & Louise"; its men are pitiful.

Rather than being equals, the men are drawn for the express purpose of being toppled, fatally or otherwise, with the exception of Harvey Keitel, an Arkansas detective with a sometimes New York accent who's an absolute Greek chorus of empathy, and Michael Madsen, Louise's long-term boyfriend. Thelma's husband, a bullying, oppressive, philandering carpet salesman, is such a caricature, and so grotesquely overplayed that audiences can't wait for him to get his. They don't have long to wait.

The rest reflect an awful contempt for all men. They're vile or sniveling, or, in the case of a rapist, both, and proud of it. There's a young stud/robber, with largely scatological small-talk. A scuzzy, tongue-happy trucker, who may just be Red Sovine's Phantom 309, popping up mysteriously whenever the plot needs him. One FBI boss advises Thelma's husband: "Be nice to her on the phone . . . women love that." Incredulous looks all around.

So, they're impossible.

But they don't make it any easier for an audience with any conscience to fall in behind Thelma or Louise. Not Louise, whose secret past makes her shoot a man, not during an attempted rape, but just afterward, in an ugly moment of mouthy bravado. Or Thelma, whose eyes get all soft when the cute cowboy hitchhiker she's in bed with tells her he's a convenience-store bandit.

"Thelma & Louise" pushes bloody, sadistic or explosive revenge for the evils men do: Shoot 'em, blow up their vehicle or stuff them, whimpering, into the trunk of their car in the desert sun. Action like this is despicable: Why should it be any more acceptable when it's done by women? Because it's our "turn"?

No thank you.

Are we so starved for "strong" women's roles that this revenge, and the pell-mell, lunatic flight that follows, fits anyone's definition of strength , or even more peculiarly, of neo-feminism ? Louise coming unglued in the face of a problem like Lucy Ricardo, without Lucy's cunning?

Actually, "Thelma & Louise" has the same, simple good-evil equation as any Stallone movie. And as in those movies, nothing in "T&L;" makes very good sense, emotionally or logically, or portrays how women would behave in these situations. How could Thelma--beaten and saved from a gratuitously shot rape attempt by a murder at close range--beg to pick up a strange hitchhiker 18 hours later because she likes the cut of his jeans? To write such perky bounce-back doesn't suggest resilience, it suggests that no one's home, emotionally. It's fine to have such characters, just don't be surprised if an audience resists seeing them as heroes.

And are we not supposed to notice that the crucial twist of the plot comes from screenwriter Khouri's bland acceptance of the oldest line in movies: that good sex validates a woman's life? Give her that--and today that means a room-wrecking sexual destruction derby--and she wakes up with a smile on her lips and her brain turned to cream of wheat.

Thelma, the moral midget who thinks of a package store stick-up man as "an outlaw," is so blown away by her first orgasm that she leaves her outlaw in the same room with all the money Louise has in the world. (Louise has left it with her so that movie won't end 45 minutes sooner.) And, before she comes up with her terrific solution, to hold up a convenience store herself, Thelma wails, "I've never been lucky, not one time!" as though choice had nothing to do with her life. Must our heroines be unconscious as well as terminally dumb?

Well, nothing in "T&L;" makes very much sense logically, either. If director Scott hadn't made it so highly stylized, so that the visuals of the movie revolved around a sole, turquoise convertible against the red sandstone of the desert, the story possibly could have been nudged into believability. They could have changed cars and gone to one of three sensible destinations: the cabin, back home, or the police station. It's understandable that the women might have panicked and left the scene of the murder, but flee to Mexico? The women outlaws escaping over the border? It doesn't quite seem to fit this day and age.

But "T&L;" is not meant as a realistic film. It's Bigger Than That. You know that when each butte in the Monument Valley has its own concealed spotlight, or when, at night, Sarandon's vintage Thunderbird, lit from everywhere including its undercarriage, casts as warm a glow as a welcoming campfire. It's Ridley Scott's great visual images that made "Blade Runner" the most visually influential film of the 1980s, "The Duellists" as irresistible as it was, and gave "Black Rain" its patent-leather gloss. None of these films, however, are noted for their personal stories or relationships.

So Scott is probably the ideal director for the last, supremely silly sequence, the women's leap "of faith." That whole, hyped-up chase sequence is the most bullying part of the movie. Having pushed its characters into a no-win situation, the filmmakers now cast their deaths as "freedom," when, in fact, their fate all along has been determined by men, not their own choice. Some feminism.

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