Now must we brace ourselves for the start of the silly season. Richard Donner's undigestably dreadful Lethal Weapon 3 opened this past Friday, and the box-office blitzkrieg continues this Friday with the return of Sigourney Weaver's parasite-pulverizing space mama, Ripley, in Alien 3, Encino Man (another SoCal comedy), and finally Ron Howard's turn-of-the-century immigrant chronicle, Far and Away. Among the big-studio leviathans still to rise up from the murky depths are three sequels - Patriot Games, Batman Returns, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kids - plus an Eddie Murphy vehicle, Boomerang, and the new Bob Zemeckis movie, Death Becomes Her. An assault on the senses guaranteed to leave America's popcorned and Raisineted patrons shouting their bravos in the aisles.
It makes you wonder whether Helen Keller had it so bad after all.
Far and Away is a Harlequin-variety love saga set at the close of the Nineteenth Century, in which Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play a pair of runaway Irish lovebirds. The film treats superficially a point in history that was, for the European continent generally but for Ireland in particular, one of great instability and misgiving. Among other things, there was the excruciating, violent Irish land-rights war that resulted in that mass exodus to America during the 1890s. More to the point, Far and Away raises a pint glass of brown ale in celebration at (what in this telling emerges as) a somewhat implausible Irish esprit de corps and an extremely cliched love of land. (Yes, with shades of Scarlett and Tara, a dying father tells his son, "Land is a man's very own soul.")
The story follows Joseph Donally (Cruise), a feisty country bumpkin, and Shannon Christie (Kidman), the daughter of upper-class, land-owning parents (Robert Prosky and Barbara Babcock), on their path from Ireland to America in search of property. (Shannon tells Joseph that in America they're giving away free acres by the hundreds.) They ride off in a coach after Donally refuses to duel Shannon's blue-blooded suitor, Stephen Chase (Thomas Gibson), after beating him in a fight. Passing Joseph off as her servant on the transatlantic cruiser, when they land in Boston, Massachusetts, Shannon discovers a con man has stolen the antique spoons she intended to pawn, and the couple is left penniless. In the poorest quarter of Boston, he tells people she's his sister, and the unconsummated couple move into a brothel. Shannon earns nickels and dimes plucking chickens; Joseph, who can land punches like Joe Frazier, soon becomes a star at a local Irish club as a bare-knuckle boxer. All this without a hint of coitus.
But their newfound street credibility and flophouse domesticity is upset when Joseph loses a bout to a heavyset Italian challenger, they get thrown out of their garret room, and attempt to fend for themselves along the snow-covered streets of Boston. They fail, and Joseph takes an ailing Shannon back to her parents, who have traveled to Boston looking for her. The action suddenly shifts to eight months later, when Shannon and Joseph, destiny-bound as before to meet, greet one another in the Oklahoma land race. He calls her "a corker" for never having given up. There's a final tussle between Chase and Donally before the free acres of land are claimed. Now, if you know your Hollywood formulas and the studios' rigid adherence to each and every one, the less said the better about who gets to claim it, and how.
The performances are part and parcel of this slow-moving, more-than-two-hour dirge. Cruise, even taking into account Groucho Marx's famous quip about Victor Mature ("I never see a picture where the man's tits are bigger than the woman's"), is no less than what a movie star should always be: charismatic. Because Irish accents have become so parodied over the years, an American like Cruise and an Antipodean like Nicole Kidman bellow their brogue fairly inoffensively. The tall, slender Kidman is the perfect partner for the diminutive, broad-chested Cruise. There's some funny interplay between them, as in the scene where an unconscious Joseph lies naked on a bed with a mixing bowl covering his privates, and Shannon, after being told by her mother to avert her innocent eyes, lifts it, gets a look, and starts. (Then she raises it again and smiles.) But while evincing a certain youthful ardor and charm, the husband-and-wife team exhibit the sexual threat of a pair of labrador retrievers energetically galloping toward a rubber ball. The supporting players (Prosky, Babcock, Gibson, even old, great Cyril Cusack), smile wanly through this blessedly silly tale. But then, acting is the least of Far and Away's worries.
Indeed, the studios have been busier than political cronies lately, plugging their newest technical innovations. Universal Pictures has made a lot of anticipatory noise regarding the historic firsts achieved with the release of Far and Away. Thus, a press release announces Ron Howard's tale as the "first feature film to be photographed with the new Panavision Super 70 camera equipment." Furthermore, says Universal, "this state-of-the-art system has allowed the filmmaker to generate a 70mm print with six-track Dolby stereo sound (from a 65mm negative), the first presentation of its kind in motion picture history." Finally, the studio claims it's been twenty years since the film shot in 70mm. God rest the souls of Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean.
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Yes, the technology's performance is a predictable success: The ample screen reproduces - and basks in - one lovely projected image after another. The DeLuxe color, like the photography by Mikael Salomon, is variously splendid. Rarely have movie locations (in this instance, the translucent west coast of Ireland and Billings, Montana) been lavished upon so utterly or been framed with more picture-postcard prettiness. And in the darkness of a movie theater, Cruise and Kidman could not emerge with more beatific comeliness.
All of which is small consolation in a film that, far and away, is one of the most spectacularly slow-witted and inane epic spectacles committed to any screen - wide, regular, or otherwise.
FAR AND AWAY
Directed by Ron Howard; written by Bob Dolman; with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Thomas Gibson, Robert Prosky, Barbara Babcock, Eileen Pollock, Michelle Johnson, and Cyril Cusack.