With its impressive cast and its women's perspective on the nature of romantic relationships, "How to Make an American Quilt" sounds appealing before the fact. And once it's over, its aftertaste is warm and pleasant. But while the film is on the screen, things are not all they should be.
For though made with care by Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse, whose edgy "Proof" was a memorable debut, "American Quilt" is a rather ordinary experience. It has its effective moments but it tends to indicate emotions more than deliver them, and is finally more conventional and unadventurous than its elements would lead you to believe.
The critical element was Whitney Otto's extravagantly reviewed novel about the varieties of emotional experience. How did a novel that excited such justified acclaim end up just adequate on film? The answer is really a case study in the often unexamined difficulties that must be faced in transferring a book to the screen.
Otto's novel briefly introduces us to a woman named Finn, engaged to a young man named Sam. With her life situation about to change, she decides to spend the summer with her grandmother Hy and Hy's sister Glady Joe in the small Northern California community of Grasse, to take a little time to think before the married part of her life begins.
Hy and Glady Joe are members of a quilting circle in Grasse, and as the summer progresses, its members not only sew a wedding present quilt for Finn (who basically disappears from the book), but they also reveal the stories of their lives, passing on wisdom along with their different experiences with love and emotion.
With its unusual structure (the stories alternate with "instructions," the author's meditations on quilting and life) and its fine writing, it's not surprising that "Quilt" captured Hollywood's heart. But like some of the characters in the book, the filmmakers loved too well but not necessarily wisely.
For one thing, "Quilt" comes in pieces; it's as much a short story collection as a novel. The kind of potent narrative line audiences are believed to hold dear is absent, and no character has a strong beginning-to-end presence. Keeping things together on paper is Otto's writing style, something not available on screen, even if the choice is made, as it is here, to extensively use voice-over.
What the filmmakers are forced into is a devil's bargain. They have to graft a narrative structure onto a novel that doesn't have one and hope like hell that it won't look like a third wheel, that enough of the book's magic will survive the surgery. In "The Joy Luck Club," an episodic novel-to-film project with a number of similarities, the changes were minimal and the operation a success. In "Quilt," a great deal has been changed, and the additions stand out as awkward.
Screenwriter Jane Anderson has some solid credits, including "The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom," but what has been concocted for "Quilt" is consistently prosaic and not nearly on the same level as the original material.
The role of Finn, for example, has been artificially bulked up so that star Winona Ryder is given as much screen time as possible. Not only is her relationship with Sam (Dermot Mulroney) made predictably rocky, a totally new and rather inane rival boyfriend named Leon (Johnathon Schaech) is fabricated out of very familiar whole cloth, just so audiences can wonder who she is going to end up with. All of this distracts from the quilters' stories, which, given how some of them have been blanded out, is at times just as well.
"Quilt" does have that remarkable cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Lois Smith, Jean Simmons and Kate Nelligan, most of whom--especially Maya Angelou as Anna, the magisterial matriarch of the quilting society--do excellent if brief work. But Alfre Woodard is underused in the undeveloped role of Anna's daughter Marianna, Anne Bancroft is considerably over the top as Hy's sister Glady Joe and the actresses never manage to cohere into a believable community.
There are moments, mostly in the strange, unhappy story of Sophia (excellently played as a young woman by Samantha Mathis) where the skill that director Moorhouse showed in "Proof" is evident. But given the nature of the original material and the people involved, it's disappointing not to feel more consistently positive about "How to Make an American Quilt." It doesn't have to be a mistake to make a tricky novel more accessible to a mass audience, but sacrificing as much as this project did should not be necessary.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for a scene of drug use, some sensuality and nudity. Times guidelines: Nothing disturbs the overall air of gentility.
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'How to Make an American Quilt'
Maya Angelou: Anna
Anne Bancroft: Glady Joe
Ellen Burstyn: Hy
Samantha Mathis: Young Sophia
Kate Nelligan: Constance
Winona Ryder: Finn
Jean Simmons: Em
Lois Smith: Sophia
Alfre Woodard: Marianna
An Amblin Entertainment production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse. Producers Sarah Pillsbury & Midge Sanford. Executive producers Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Deborah Jelin Newmyer. Screenplay Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Whitney Otto. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Editor Jill Bilock. Costumes Ruth Myers. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Leslie Dilley. Art director Ed Verreaux. Set decorator Marvin March. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.