Aw Shucks, He’s Just ‘The Postman’
The year is 2013. America’s consumer society lies in ruins, a hodgepodge of faded Coppertone billboards and tilted Union 76 globes. Heartless bandit hordes rape and pillage at will. Who dares stand in their way? Can anyone rise to the challenge of speaking out for what’s good and decent? To the strains of “deliver the letter, the sooner the better,” a hero does arise. Believe it or not, it’s “The Postman.”
The first film to be directed by and star Kevin Costner since “Dances With Wolves” won seven Oscars, “The Postman” sounds like it’s going to be “Dirtworld,” a land-locked version of Costner’s most notorious film, the much-derided but finally adequate “Waterworld.”
But “The Postman” turns out to be something much sillier than that. Goofy and gee-whiz when it isn’t being post-apocalyptic glum, it is such an earnest hodgepodge that only by imagining “Mad Max” directed by Frank Capra can you get even an inkling of what it’s like.
Working with cinematographer Stephen Windon and production designer Ida Random, Costner does display the sense of epic storytelling that characterized his work in “Wolves” and “Waterworld,” as well as the belief that any film that doesn’t approach three hours isn’t worthy of his attention.
But the actor-director doesn’t seem to realize or care how unintentionally funny the Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland scenario (adapted from the novel by David Brin) plays on that wide screen. While some of the film’s choicer lines were apparently cut after wiser heads intervened, others have remained. “You’re a godsend, you’re a savior,” breathless folk say to Costner’s nameless drifter, to which he replies, with the humility and solemnity of a medieval saint, “No, I’m just the postman.” True enough.
Costner tries to combat the unlikeliness of a postman as a mythic figure, able to inspire devoted legions and the key to the revival of the Restored United States of America, by playing his character as a reluctant hero, an aw-shucks kind of guy who stumbles onto greatness all unawares.
Introduced by an awe-filled voice-over that announces, “In those days he walked alone, a solitary witness to the chaos that reigned,” Costner’s drifter is an itinerant actor who wanders the West with his trusty mule Bill, reciting snippets of Shakespeare in the hopes of getting a free meal.
It is the drifter’s bad luck to run across the path of Gen. Bethlehem (Will Patton), a former copy machine salesman who now commands a ragtag army that spreads terror wherever it can. Conscripted into the general’s militia, he suffers through multiple screenings of “The Sound of Music” (no kidding) before escape becomes possible.
On the run, the drifter stumbles on a letter carrier’s uniform. Seeing the impersonation as a way of scamming free meals, he puts it on and tells people in the nearby hamlet of Pine View that the government is starting up again and mail delivery will resume.
“Stuff is getting better” is the essence of his message, and it certainly starts getting better for the Postman. The uniform attracts the attention of the fetching Abby (British stage actress Olivia Williams), a married woman with a sterile husband who’s in search of just the right drifter to serve as the “body father” for her future child.
Things are so hopeless in Pine View that against his will the Postman attracts followers desperate for something to believe in. Prime among them is the grandly named Ford Lincoln Mercury (an ill-at-ease Larenz Tate), who soon enough starts shouting deranged things like “I’m a postman, I’m not running from anything.”
The film’s all-time gee-whiz line, however, goes to Abby, who has to look our hero in the eye and tell him straight on, “You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket. You have a gift, Postman.” There’s only one word for this, and those who remember what Costner himself told Madonna about her show in the “Truth or Dare” documentary will know what it is: neat.
With its logic-defying mixture of tones and acting styles (rock star Tom Petty is especially problematical), “The Postman” shows what can go wrong when you trust movie stars to direct themselves. What Costner and company have ended up with is a 2-hour-and-50-minute vanity project, an elaborate and expensive frame that exists to display the kind of role he likes to play. Whether anyone beyond the actor’s most loyal fans will think that’s neat is another story.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and some sexuality. Times guidelines: beatings, killings and a single scene of love-making.
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Kevin Costner: The Postman
Will Patton: Bethlehem
Larenz Tate: Ford Lincoln Mercury
Olivia Williams: Abby
James Russo: Idaho
Tom Petty: The Mayor
A Tig production, released by Warner Bros. Director Kevin Costner. Producers Jim Wilson, Steve Tisch, Costner. Screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, based on the book by David Brin. Cinematographer Stephen Windon. Editor Peter Boyle. Costumes John Bloomfield. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Ira Random. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
* Opens Thursday in general release throughout Southern California.