Review: ‘Curse of the Starving Class’

A stellar, eccentric cast brings class but no emotional resonance to "Curse of the Starving Class," a peculiarly ineffective rendition of Sam Shepard's 1977 award-winning play. An ironic dissection of the American Dream as it affects and destroys one white farming family, pic signals a curse at the box office, though video prospects may be better.

A stellar, eccentric cast brings class but no emotional resonance to “Curse of the Starving Class,” a peculiarly ineffective rendition of Sam Shepard’s 1977 award-winning play. An ironic dissection of the American Dream as it affects and destroys one white farming family, pic signals a curse at the box office, though video prospects may be better due to Shepard’s name and recognition value of James Woods and Kathy Bates.

If the piece seems outdated and familiar, it is not because its issues are no longer relevant, but rather a result of Shepard’s obsessive exploration of the same myths and conflicts in such subsequent works as “Buried Child,””True West” and “Fool for Love.

The usual Shepard themes of commitment to the land, disintegration of the nuclear family and intergenerational strife between father and son are all here — along with the typical iconography of dilapidated houses, shabby motels and sleazy bars.

Woods plays Weston, the alcoholic, irresponsible patriarch of a down-on-its-luck family whose members keep reminding themselves they do not belong to the starving class. Weston’s wife, Ella (Bates), a feisty if disenchanted woman, can barely manage the run-down farm and feed her children, Wesley (Henry Thomas) and Emma (Kristin Fiorella).

Each member of this dysfunctional family engages in daydreams and fantasies to escape a gloomy, hopeless fate. Desperate to visit Paris before it’s too late , Ella tries to sell the farm to Taylor (Randy Quaid), a greedy land developer, even if it means going to bed with him. Eluding his collectors and still haunted by nightmares from his combat days in Vietnam, Weston has his own plan for the land.

With no guidance from their parents, Wesley and Emma are lost souls.

Scripter Beresford, better known as a director, has worked hard to open up the play. It backfires: Shepard’s offbeat, ironic humor, so integral to the magic of theater, is missing from the writing — and direction. Pic is also unsuccessful in conveying the poetic quality of the language — onscreen, actors appear bizarre when talking to an empty refrigerator, their sheep or themselves.

First-time director Michael McClary doesn’t trust his material, and subsequently his style hysterically vacillates between outdoor and indoor scenes. With all his effort, however, the narrative remains theatrical in its structure, with well-timed exits and entrances. Helmer uses too many “cinematic” cuts and intercuts, and the actors have no opportunity to build coherent characters.

Under these circumstances, Woods gives one of his weaker performances, particularly in the first half, when he’s over the top.

Bates, who reprises her acclaimed Off Broadway role, is no more than OK. Unfortunately, the director inflicts on her close-ups that are not only unflattering but don’t do much to register the emotions of her complex character as both victim and survivor. Thomas and Fiorella have a few good moments, but Quaid and Lou Gossett Jr. (as the local bar owner) are defeated by one-dimensional roles.

This is a miss on several levels, proving again that what works on stage doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen.

Curse of the Starving Class

(Drama -- Color)

Production

A Trimark release and production. Produced by William S. Gilmore, Harel Goldstein. Executive producers, Bruce Beresford, David Goldstein. Directed by Michael McClary. Screenplay, Beresford, based on Sam Shepard's play.

Crew

Camera (color), Dick Quinlan; editor, Dean Goodhill; production design, Ladislav Wilheim; set decoration, Grey Smith; costume design, Kathryn Morrison; sound (Ultra Stereo), Robert Wald; associate producer, Fran Roy; assistant director, Tom Herod; casting, Shari Rodes, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 10, 1994. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 min.

With

Weston ... James Woods Ella ... Kathy Bates Wesley ... Henry Thomas Emma ... Kristin Fiorella Ellis ... Lou Gossett Jr. Taylor ... Randy Quaid
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