Robert Redford hasn't exactly killed "A River Runs Through It" with kindness, but he has come uncomfortably close.
On his orders every frame of this tribute to families and fly fishing has been varnished with so much respect, every aspect of its production has been treated with such care and consideration (down to ensuring that not a single fish would get so much as tired, much less caught) that it feels positively churlish to even hazard an unkind thought about it.
But the fact remains that as both co-producer and director, Redford has been so infatuated for so long with Norman Maclean's slim, beautifully written memoir of Montana life that he has neglected to make it clear why he is so crazy about the material in the first place. Loving and well-intentioned though this film is, it never convinces you that its subject matter merits this kind of idealized, worshipful attention.
Obviously, "River" (citywide, rated PG) is not lacking in good things. Its cinematography (by Philippe Rousselot) is luminous, its Redford-read narration has the sense to come largely from the book, and it offers a fine, career-making performance from Brad Pitt. For part of the time, at least, if you get caught up in its rhythms and don't ask it to be what it's not, "River" does have its moments of quiet satisfaction.
The book on which it is based was not written until its author turned 70. Famously rejected by at least one publisher because "these stories have trees in them," its precisely written, gently acerbic remembrances deal with the early life of the author and his brother, Paul, in a family where "there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Though its focus on nature and fishing make it an unlikely target, the book has attracted continual movie interest for years, but Maclean, reputedly a cantankerous type, turned everyone down until Redford, himself a committed Westerner, put in a bid.
The project's lure is twofold. Its rustic, Montana setting offers a chance to experience, albeit at second-hand, the kind of nominally simpler, more pastoral existence that was already lost when Maclean wrote about it. And its story of two brothers, the serious one and the scamp, holds out the possibility of some dramatic tension as well.
We meet the boys first as youngsters, learning about the hard facts of life in the brawling streets of Missoula and about the grace and joy of fly fishing from their father (Tom Skerritt), the usual gruff but kindly sort who tried not to let his calling as a Presbyterian minister interfere with his appreciation of the beauties of angling along the Big Blackfoot River.
As the boys grow into their 20s in the years following the First World War, the differences between them become more pronounced. Norman (Craig Sheffer) is the somber one, something of a stick in the mud, whose nickname of "professor" is only partly due to his Dartmouth education.
Paul, by contrast, is increasingly infatuated with girls, whiskey and dangerous, high-stakes card games. Working as a hard-living (is there any other kind?) newspaperman because, he only half-jokes, there is no money in fly fishing, Paul seems to have all the zest in the family while Norman has inherited all the caution.
The alternating love and tension between the two brothers is the best thing about "A River Runs Through It," and though Craig Sheffer is an appropriately solid Norman, it is Brad Pitt's sly and cocky Paul who really makes things happen. Good as he was as Geena Davis' desperado love in "Thelma & Louise," he is even more impressive here, playing one of the few movie rogues whose brash and easy-going charm is actually visible to the naked eye.
While all this is painless enough to watch, it is presented in such an earnest and well-mannered style that much of the potential emotion feels bleached out of the proceedings and the viewer searches in vain for something compelling to hang onto. Ditto for the fly-fishing sequences, which are warm and lovely but not something you want to write home about. Worse luck, especially for "River's" screenwriter, Richard Friedenberg, is that these two threads not only turn out to be not enough to weave a fulfilling movie from, they are all the original material has to offer.
So, working from the facts and anecdotes of Maclean's life, Friedenberg has tried hard to find something else to put on the screen. Mostly he has focused on Maclean's wife, Jessie, who has about three lines in the memoir but here has been conscientiously built up to a character major enough to warrant the presence of Emily Lloyd in the role.
Though this something extra was inevitable if "A River Runs Through It" was to make it to the screen, the boy-meets-girl courtship sequences involving Jessie are the weakest part of the film, saddled with a tacked-on feeling that reflects their "we gotta have something" origins. When the scenario gets generic and wanders away from what Maclean himself put down on paper, even those who never heard of the book will notice the movie losing its feeling and its way.
Though Maclean, who died in 1990, might conceivably have approved of the filler, it is unlikely that the man who once said of movie people, "Now there is a bunch that eats what they find run over on the road" would be so tolerant.
Though "A River Runs Through It" does no harm and at times is touching almost in spite of itself, the main emotion it arouses is a curiosity about what all the fuss was about in the first place.
'A River Runs Through It'
Craig Sheffer: Norman Maclean
Brad Pitt: Paul Maclean
Tom Skerritt: Reverend Maclean
Brenda Blethyn: Mrs. Maclean
Emily Lloyd: Jessie Burns
Stephen Shellen: Neal Burns
Released by Columbia Pictures. Director Robert Redford. Producers Robert Redford, Patrick Markey. Screenplay Richard Friedenberg, based on a story by Norman Maclean. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Editor Lynzee Klingman. Costumes Bernie Pollack, Kathy O'Rear. Music Mark Isham. Production design Jon Hutman. Art director Walter Martishius. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (momentary nudity and some language in a family drama).