Rabbit Bunch

When Gary Sinise was playing Tom Joad in the acclaimed Broadway version of The Grapes of Wrath, he was fortunate enough to receive a visit from the author's widow. After Elaine Steinbeck expressed her approval of Sinise's interpretation of her late husband's work, the actor mentioned it seemed high time for an update of another Steinbeck classic. It didn't matter that since Of Mice and Men was published in 1937 it had already been through two filmed versions. The times, he felt, were ripe for a retelling.

The depressed economic and political climates today are in perfect alignment for Of Mice and Men. Two lonely guys who "got nothing to look ahead to" seem as at home now as they did in Depression-era California. It's almost incidental that the film is set in those hard times. The sun-scorched locations, shot in the Santa Ynez Valley, complement the weather-beaten, down-on-their-luck duo of George Milton (Sinise) and Lennie Small (John Malkovich).

George is clever but compassionate, a drifter who could surely carve a better niche for himself were it not for his deep sense of loyalty to his companion. Lennie is partially retarded, a man more like a boy whose huge frame makes up for what he lacks in brains.

In the simple mind of Lennie, George is everything: parent, partner, and friend. He saves the rest of his limited attention for animals, like the dead mouse he keeps in his overalls pocket, crushed by overzealous petting.

Lennie's combination of massive strength and childlike affection has hurt more than a few rodents. His misguided passions have caused repeated trouble for George, who spends his life guarding Lennie and moving from town to town in search of another job and a fresh start.

The Tyler Ranch offers new hope on the dusty horizon. There, George and Lennie find plenty of work, a rickety bunkhouse to live in, and a kindred spirit in Candy (Ray Walston, a.k.a. My Favorite Martian), a decrepit ranch hand who's outlived his usefulness. When Candy hears the newcomers' plan to buy a farm of their own and "live off the fat of the land," he chips in his life savings and makes the pair a trio. The dreams of three lifetimes seem about to materialize.

Enter Curley (Casey Siemaszko), the ranch owner's son, and his wife (Sherilyn Fenn), unnamed here as in the novel. The cinematic Curley, like his literary counterpart, remains an evil-hearted bigot, a redneck bully embodying intolerance and fear -- emotions he expresses through his fists.

As for the Mrs., the sole woman in Of Mice and Men, she remains a temptress and a symbol of selfishness (no one can accuse Steinbeck of being a protofeminist). Her lust -- and foolishness -- smash the scheme of George, Lennie, and Candy to rubble.

Director Sinise and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies) remain faithful to the original author in almost every respect. Sinise's Of Mice and Men is by far the most reverential of all Steinbeck treatments, and probably the best. This is particularly noteworthy at the picture's tragic climax, where earlier versions turn maudlin, aiming for the tear ducts with the subtlety of Love Story meets Old Yeller.

Here the filmmakers observe the proceedings with a distant eye, creating a believable atmosphere grounded in earthy, realistic performances. Even having read the book, seen the previous movie and TV versions and play, I found myself unprepared for the famous "I get to tend those rabbits" line.

Sinise and Malkovich earn high marks with Of Mice and Men. Hailing from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the two, like George and Lennie, are longtime partners. They appeared together in Sam Shepard's True West on the New York stage, with Sinise again directing. Taped for broadcast on PBS, True West presented quite possibly the two strongest dramatic performances I have ever seen, period.

Those not familiar with their work may find it hard to discern how brilliant their portrayals are in Of Mice and Men. As Lennie, Malkovich betrays not a hint of intelligence. His eyes are devoid of the actor's characteristic wit. He constantly fiddles with his clothing and rocks back and forth like a little boy nervous about finding a bathroom. He exaggerates his own slight lisp to a major impediment and successfully resists the easy showboating that a role like this offers, the I'm-a-ham-in-a-wheelchair-so-give-me-an-Oscar performance.

Sinise is quiet and brooding, the perfect counterpoint for Malkovich. As an actor, he is exemplary; but as a director, he must be held accountable for siren-of-the-week Sherilyn Fenn. Her looks may put the hell in bombshell, but she isn't much of an actress. Her whiny presence is the picture's only liability.

Otherwise, Sinise has done Steinbeck proud, making the author's story of courage and sacrifice in the face of ignorance as relevant now as when it was written.

Directed by Gary Sinise; written by Horton Foote, based on the novel by John Steinbeck; with Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Ray Walston, Casey Siemaszko, and Sherilyn Fenn.



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