Movie Review : ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’ Is All Thumbs


Like many films that arrive on screen more dead than alive, writer-director Gus Van Sant’s version of Tom Robbins’ “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” contains its own built-in epitaph. “Playfulness ceases to have a serious purpose when it takes itself too seriously,” someone says, a theory this unfortunate movie goes way out of its way to prove.

Certainly Robbins’ original novel, which followed the exploits, hitchhiking and otherwise, of Sissy Hankshaw and her oversized thumbs, was playful to the point of suffocating cutesyness. Whatever charges can be made against a book that comes up with a philosophy of “Ha Ha . . . Hoo Hoo . . . Hee Hee” and dialogue like “You can tune a guitar but you can’t tuna fish,” excessive seriousness is not one of them.

Though millions apparently found this sort of thing appealing, that doesn’t ensure that its gossamer spirit would benefit by or even survive the translation to flesh-and-blood reality that turning words into film makes inevitable.


And even if Robbins’ book could possibly have been made into a successful picture, getting Van Sant to do it, the ideal hipster-meets-hipster combination though it must have seemed at the time, has turned out to be a recipe for a fiasco.

For what Robbins’ smug whimsy doesn’t need is a dose of Van Sant’s deadpan aesthetic of knowing, way hip boredom. Though the director’s sensibility worked extraordinarily well when applied to hard-edged subject matter like “Drugstore Cowboy” and even “My Own Private Idaho,” combining it with Robbins’ flimsy jokiness has resulted in a film whose tedium is painful.

Postponed for six months of tinkering after lackluster screenings at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, “Cowgirls” stars Uma Thurman as Sissy, the proud possessor of thumbs the size of Hebrew National kosher hot dogs. A former model for the Yoni-Yum line of feminine hygiene products, Sissy finds that her true calling is the open road. Nothing that moves, up to and including airplanes, can resist those thumbs, a situation that causes Sissy to declaim, in a typically leaden monologue, “I have the rhythms of the universe inside me. I am in a state of grace.”

A letter from Yoni-Yum magnate the Countess (John Hurt), one of Robbins’ androgynous characters, brings Sissy to New York City, where she resists the notion of riding in a taxi and paying for transportation and has an abortive date with artist Julian Gitche (Keanu Reeves) and his decadent friends.

Then it’s off to the Countess’ Rubber Rose Ranch way out West to film yet another commercial, this one inspired by the flock of whooping cranes who stop off there. Also in the neighborhood is the Chink (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), an enigmatic spiritual leader without portfolio, and the ranch’s assorted lesbian cowgirls, led by the whip-cracking Delores Del Ruby (Lorraine Bracco) and the equally boisterous Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix, River’s sister), who can’t help falling in love with Sissy.

Because both the Robbins novel and Van Sant himself are such pillars of trendiness, any number of celebrated folks ended up with bit parts in the film, including a brief but puzzling glimpse of William Burroughs, a particular favorite of the director’s. Former Merry Pranksters Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs play Sissy’s relatives, Roseanne Arnold is a fortuneteller named Madame Zoe and Buck Henry plays an aphorism-spouting surgeon, all to not much effect.


Though it is possible to pin various philosophical labels on “Cowgirls,” loaded as it is with undeveloped notions about feminism and individuality, nothing about it is really memorable except the appealing musicality of the fine k.d. lang/Ben Mink score, which deserves better. So do those poor whooping cranes, who look great in their close-ups but would have been wise to follow Sissy’s motto: “When in doubt, keep moving.” It’s that kind of film.

* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality and language. Times guidelines: It includes some raunchy talk, brief nudity and awkwardly simulated sex.

‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’

Uma Thurman: Sissy Hankshaw

John Hurt: The Countess

Rain Phoenix: Bonanza Jellybean

Noriyuki “Pat” Morita: The Chink

Keanu Reeves: Julian Gitche

Lorraine Bracco: Delores Del Ruby

Angie Dickinson: Miss Adrian

Released by Fine Line Features. Director Gus Van Sant. Producer Laurie Parker. Screenplay Gus Van Sant, based on the novel by Tom Robbins. Cinematographers John Campbell, Eric Alan Edwards. Editors Gus Van Sant, Curtis Clayton. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music k.d. lang & Ben Mink. Production design Missy Stewart. Art director Dan Self. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.