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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Rich in Love’ a Sweet, Sensitive Family Drama : The film doesn’t work up much narrative steam but director Bruce Beresford offers so much to look at that it hardly matters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s a plangent sweetness about the best parts of “Rich in Love.” Set in South Carolina, it’s about what happens to a chunky, good-hearted retiree, Warren Odom (Albert Finney), when his wife, Helen (Jill Clayburgh), suddenly walks out on him without any warning.

One of their daughters, Lucille (Kathryn Erbe), is a moony high school senior who takes over the role of matriarch. Rae (Suzy Amis), her older, sassier sister, shows up with her new husband, Billy (Kyle MacLachlan), and a baby on the way. When it becomes clear that Helen isn’t coming back, the family settles into a cozy, dozy comfortableness. They miss her and they go through all manner of denial over their loss but they’re a surprisingly resilient bunch.

Helen’s flight, prompted by her need to cut loose, inspires her family to cut loose too. “Rich in Love” starts out like a tragedy--by all rights it ought to be a tragedy--but it turns into a comedy of affirmation instead. Bruce Beresford, who directed from a script by Alfred Uhry based on a novel by Josephine Humphreys, knows how to make the moss-hung Southern landscape resonate without larding the imagery with postcard-pretty pictures. He’s a superbly tasteful craftsman--almost a master craftsman.

The movie (rated PG-13 for thematic material) doesn’t really work up much narrative steam but Beresford gives you so much to look at that it hardly matters. He locates the emotional center of every scene in a few quick strokes and then moves on. He doesn’t lean on you; his principled reserve is an artist’s approach to the complexities of character. He knows that the people in this film are wayward and instinctive and he follows their zig-zags with a true openness to experience.

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“Rich in Love” (selected theaters) might have been an even stronger film if that experience had greater conflict. Beresford and Uhry, who last collaborated on “Driving Miss Daisy,” don’t shove their characters into melodramatic situations but they also don’t push the richest possibilities in the material. The film suffers from a heavy dose of niceness; nothing terribly crucial seems to be at stake in its people’s lives (even when it is).

This approach is no doubt intentional--the filmmakers are trying to eliminate the wailing and moaning of traditional family drama and instead serve up its transcendent high points. They’re trying to create a movie that’s one long happy sigh.

But our desire for a bit more grit isn’t necessarily a symptom of how corrupt our taste has become. It could also mean that we’re missing out on the full range of emotional possibilities in the story. In “Rich in Love,” things happen without much payoff: Lucille is told the startling circumstances of her birth; Rae suddenly croons a blues ballad in a honky-tonk, and she’s a knockout; her husband, a Yankee, demonstrates some racial edginess to his wife’s black friends, and later he comes on to Lucille. None of these revelations have any afterlife in the film. They disappear into the texture without ever having acquired much shape.

There’s a moonlit scene where Billy tells Lucille “you’ve got a lot of loving in you,” and it’s true. Her yearning ties her up in knots; she seems skittish and spunky and bewildered all at once. Kathryn Erbe gives a fine performance despite the way the film knocks out her lower register. (It knocks out everybody’s low notes.) Her role calls up Julie Harris’ work as Frankie in the movie adaptation of Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” but withoutFrankie’s aggravating turmoil and misery. It’s a placid kind of misery that Lucille undergoes; the universe she inhabits is too genial for true terror.

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As Warren, Finney is a great galumphing image. When Warren finally understands that Helen is not coming back, he goes all slack and flabby. (He fixes himself potato chip and mayonnaise sandwiches; worse, he makes them look good .) He’s like a big sleepwalking zombie. Finney shows us how Warren’s layabout casualness turns out to be his salvation; he’s so befogged and confused by his wife’s exit that he never really comprehends what has happened to him. He just knows he wants to be pampered again, and he finds his match in Piper Laurie’s Vera Delmage, a woman so captivated by Warren that she seems to cuddle him just by looking at him. She bakes him angel food cake and, in a real sense, she’s his angel of mercy. Together they have a beatific good humor.

Suzy Amis gives the most complex performance. Her beauty has levels of hurt and disappointment in it that indicate her tough-tender broad act is just a cover-up. Watching a ‘40s weepie on TV, she states out loud, " I was meant for the ‘40s.” What she means is that her life is without a romantic armature; the sensuous ease of her surroundings is both lulling and dispiriting.

There are no villains in “Rich in Love,” and that’s a key to its decency. “Rich in Love” doesn’t go very deep--it’s too lofty and idealized--but it presents a companionable and blameless view of family turmoil that has its own small measure of truth.

‘Rich in Love’

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Albert Finney: Warren Odom Jill Clayburgh: Helen Odom Kathryn Erbe: Lucille Odom Suzy Amis: Rae Odom

A Metro Goldwyn Mayer presentation of a Zanuck company production. Director Bruce Beresford. Producer Richard D. Zanuck. Screenplay by Alfred Uhry. Cinematographer Peter James. Editor Mark Warner. Costumes Colleen Kelsall. Music Georges Delerue. Production design John Stoddart. Set designer Carl Copeland. Set decorator John Anderson. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (for thematic material).


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