"Something to Talk About" is like a slow-simmering stew, the kind that flavors familiar ingredients with special herbs and spices. Those spices surely accomplish wonders, but underneath it all you are left with the usual culinary suspects.
Making "Something" happen is an enviable creative team, starting with "Thelma & Louise" screenwriter Callie Khouri and Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?," "My Life as a Dog"). Each has a perfect understanding of the comically eccentric, and their collaboration gives the film a welcome off-center feeling, a human tempo and pacing that emphasize character whenever possible.
Attracted by that rare idiosyncratic quality is a fine cast, starting with star Julia Roberts and extending through Robert Duvall, Gena Rowlands, Kyra Sedgwick and Dennis Quaid. They work so well together that it takes a while to realize that underneath their success is a schematic story line that is weaker and more familiar than it should be.
Filmed largely in South Carolina, "Something" is set in unnamed Southern horse country, where tradition and the way things have always been done count for a great deal. They matter especially to Wyly King (Duvall), patriarch of King Farms, a willful, emotionally obtuse horse breeder who does what he wants and then tells his stable manager, "It's done, now roll with it."
Because that manager is his married daughter Grace King Bichon (Roberts), Wyly's belligerent tantrums are particularly troublesome, as is the fact that Grace's own strong-minded 10-year-old daughter Caroline (newcomer Haley Aull) wants to ride a potentially dangerous full-size horse in an upcoming Grand Prix equestrian event.
Harried as she thinks she is, Grace finds that things can get worse. While driving through town, she sees her husband, Eddie Bichon (Quaid), give a non-fraternal kiss to an attractive blonde. His adultery is soon confirmed, and how Grace responds to the world's oldest question--should she forgive him and take him back?--is something for everyone to talk about.
Already stretched thin, irritated that "I don't have time for the nervous breakdown I deserve," Grace is turned by her crisis into a loose cannon with an unerring instinct for the wrong move. Soon both her shoot-from-the-hip sister Emma Rae (Sedgwick) and her patrician mother Georgia (Rowlands) find themselves having to deal with what the pressure does to Grace.
"Something to Talk About" is at its best when Khouri's juicy script is adroitly mixing comedy and pathos. Its other great strength is its collection of formidable and well-played female characters, live wires every one, and the adult way it treats a troubled marriage. Praise should also go to performers like Quaid, willing and able to humanize an unappealing character, and Duvall, a magician who can play anything, any time, anywhere.
Still, fine as its elements are, this film does not feel completely realized. Though its humor is largely telling, it can also descend into awkward farce. Plot points tend to be routine, situations do not always mesh with each other and the film can't seem to decide when and how it should end.
And, just as an aside, when is Julia Roberts going to allow herself to smile more than briefly in a major motion picture? Although it is heartening to see her involved with this kind of quality material, her long-ago sunniness remains a distant memory, like peace in Yugoslavia. Is it too much to hope that it might come back someday?
* MPAA rating: R, for brief strong language. Times guidelines: The bad language is mostly comic in intention. 'Something to Talk About'
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Julia Roberts: Grace King Bichon
Robert Duvall: Wyly King
Gena Rowlands: Georgia King
Kyra Sedgwick: Emma Rae King
Dennis Quaid: Eddie Bichon
A Spring Creek production, released by Warner Bros. Director Lasse Hallstrom. Producers Anthea Sylbert, Paula Weinstein. Executive producer Goldie Hawn. Screenplay Callie Khouri. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Editor Mia Goldman. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music Hans Zimmer, Graham Preskett. Production design Mel Bourne. Set decorator Roberta Holinko. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.