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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Rose’ Blooms With Homespun Charm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When people complain that they don’t like any of the characters in a movie, what they generally mean is that they don’t care about any of the characters. “Rambling Rose” makes you care about characters you like--it’s a double whammy.

The film’s homespun geniality isn’t exciting in ways that make for the most memorable movies; directed by Martha Coolidge, it’s mild and honeyed and, at times, pleasantly, lullingly dopey. But the performers have a sweetness that wins you over from the beginning, and the scenario keeps faking you out by getting into more weirdly comic areas than you might have anticipated. The comic effrontery in this film (at selected San Diego theaters) is like a shared joke; we keep waiting for some new strangeness to subvert the moss-hung mellowness.

Rose (Laura Dern) is a waif-like Alabama orphan, raised on a dirt-poor tenant farm, who goes to work as a maid for the Hillyer family in Georgia in 1935. The Hillyers don’t realize what they’re letting themselves in for. Daddy (Robert Duvall) is full of high-flown prattle about Rose’s charms, but she misinterprets his chivalry and flings herself at him. Mother (Diane Ladd) casts a sympathetic eye on Rose’s lovelorn ramblings, which grow to include apparently half the town’s young male population. “Girls don’t want sex, they want love,” she lectures Daddy, who grudgingly wants Rose out of the house so the family can return to normal.

The point is that, once Rose has entered their lives, the Hillyers can never return to “normal.”

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It’s her blessing for them, even if they don’t quite realize it in the moment. Calder Willingham, who wrote the script based on his semi-autobiographical 1973 novel, is dewy-eyed about Rose, and so is Coolidge. She’s like an emanation of many a man’s first, idealized love; she’s the first you lost your heart to. Rose is a temptress all right, but a temptress completely without guile; she doesn’t acknowledge the effect she has on men. Mother is right--it’s love she wants.

The reason the sap doesn’t overflow here is that the filmmakers and the performers have fun with all this moony-tender stuff. As Dern plays her, Rose is a touching, gawky waif, but, in her desperation to please, she’s also a bit goofy and hare-brained. She’s the long-limbed imp who tweaks the Hillyers’ proprieties, and they all get a little high on the disruption.

And no one more so than the Hillyers’ eldest son, 13-year-old Buddy (Lukas Haas), who shares with Rose the funniest scene in the movie. Her advances rejected by Daddy, Rose creeps into Buddy’s bed for sympathy and ends up being fondled by him. It’s a daring little scene, expertly played.

Coolidge in general is best when she’s working close-in with just a few performers at a time. She’s gotten one of Duvall’s best performances out of him. Daddy may seem like a staunch patriarch at first but he’s got his own moonstruck balminess.

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Duvall works particularly well with Ladd (Dern’s real-life mother) because she matches his headstrong mooniness. Watching them in bed together at night, we can see how they keep missing each other’s thoughts and yet seem perfectly right for one another. For all her otherworldly prattle, Mother has a core of decency that Daddy adores. She has a sense of the rightness of things, and this comes to the fore in a scene near the end when an unfeeling doctor (Kevin Conway) almost convinces Daddy to surgically de-sex Rose. Shamed by Mother, Daddy’s retreat from the brink is so touching and triumphant that you want to applaud.

Coolidge and Willingham are working in a pastoral mode that deliberately jettisons any real psychological depth. If they had built all sorts of psychosexual implications into their R-rated movie, it might have been darker and screwier, but at the expense of its flyaway charm. Coolidge works hard at creating a stylized, tall-tale atmosphere, but she doesn’t always succeed, and sometimes our “modern” skepticism about what these people are really up to comes through anyway and the film begins to seem foolish. It is foolish, but in an innocent way that carries you along. The film puts us in the same position as Daddy when he tries to figure out Rose: We’re tickled and we’d prefer not to know.


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