Uma Thurman's distinctive physical traits--uncommon beauty and gangliness--uniquely suit her to the role of Sissy Hankshaw, the heroine of Gus Van Sant's new film, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, adapted by Van Sant from Tom Robbins' enduring late-hippie-era novel of 1976. Sissy's distinctive physical traits--her beauty and her abnormally long thumbs--make her, we are told, uniquely suited to the role of the world's greatest hitchhiker.
Well, maybe Sissy is the greatest hitchhiker in the world of American counterculture literature, although it's worth remembering that Jack Kerouac did what he did with normal-size thumbs. But among movie hitchhikers, few would dispute that Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night still holds the title, petite thumbs likewise not withstanding.
The fault isn't Thurman's. She really does cut an impressive, almost heroic figure standing by the road, flagging down vehicles--including aircraft--with her Brobdingnagian opposable digits. If only there were a movie to go with this seductive, free-spirited image. Maybe there was one, but Van Sant, for all his gifts, couldn't find it.
Van Sant filled this movie up with seductive, free-spirited imagery. What he didn't give us, probably because he didn't have it to give, is a plot. I use the term "plot" here in the loosest, most episodic sense--a reason for us to care what happens next. The story is a jokey, episodic pastiche, but even on those terms it has no momentum, no suspense. The episodes barely seem connected, even when they involve the same characters.
Sissy ekes out her itinerant existence as a fashion model, particularly in association with the Countess (John Hurt), a New York-based marketer of feminine hygiene products. The Countess sends Sissy to the Rubber Rose Ranch, an all-woman health spa in the Pacific Northwest, to play a whooping crane in a television commercial. While there, Sissy meets the love of her life, an Annie Oakley type called Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix), leader of a pack of cowgirls. This faction plans to seize control of the ranch from the prim and proper ladies (led by Angie Dickinson) who use it as a beauty retreat, and turn it into a safe haven for the real whooping cranes, who flock there annually.
In short, the yarn is an ersatz-picaresque, a jumble of feminist/environmentalist motifs for Sissy to move through. When Van Sant has a simple, linear story to work from, as in his superb Drugstore Cowboy or his fine, little-seen debut feature Mala Noche, he's capable of remarkable things. These were films about pointless behavior, but they weren't pointless films. But My Own Private Idaho, fascinating though it was in many respects, suggested that Van Sant didn't have the first idea how to develop less-focused material into a current of action moving toward a resolution. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues suggests this more strongly still.
But at least My Own Private Idaho felt authentic. When it worked, it was hypnotic and funny. Cowgirls is likewise infused with Van Sant's loopy visual lyricism, and has a flavorful musical score and a dynamite cast. There are moments that stick in the mind--a ravaged-looking Lorraine Bracco (in her best performance yet) staggering out of a marsh, or Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, as a wise, old mountain sage, looking down in disgust at the ranch as the factions fight it out, or Thurman herself, capering about in whooping crane drag or, as aforementioned, thumbing for rides. And bits of the writing, like the final narration (spoken by Robbins himself), are rather good.
Yet somehow, at the level of source material, it all doesn't seem worth the talent it's been lent. This is hard to say about Robbins, a writer for whom I, like many people, have some affection (I especially get a kick out of Another Roadside Attraction). Yet his routines seem cautious and dated off the page. In the mouths of actors, even good ones, they sound forced and arch.
I've heard that the film was pared down considerably prior to release, which probably accounts in part for the narrative's incoherence. Just the same, more length wouldn't benefit this picture--what it needs is less cornball counterculture jocularity, and more human truth.
@7col:Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: Directed by Gus Van Sant; with Uma Thurman, Rain Phoenix, John Hurt, Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Angie Dickinson, Keanu Reeves.
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@hed:Win Thumb, Lose Thumb
@by:By M. V. Moorhead
@cut:Hippie dippy: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.