Midlife crisis forms the basis of “Carried Away,” an explicitly told tale culled from a Jim Thompson novel. Anchored by a powerful performance from Dennis Hopper, it’s at turns a sex comedy and a poignant drama. The two elements never mesh, posing a daunting marketing challenge. Pic’s graphic sexual elements aren’t quite prurient, while the drama itself, despite unique settings, doesn’t provide sufficient novelty for mainstream interest. The picture should do modest business in upscale theatrical situations and in subsequent cable and video playoff.
Director Bruno Barreto and adaptor Ed Jones have obviously reached for universality of theme. Howardsville, the small-town locale, is in an unidentified Midwestern state, and the story apparently occurs in the 1980s. Joseph (Hopper) teaches at the local school and operates the family farm. He has a bad leg from a childhood accident and tends to his dying mother (Julie Harris). For the past six years he’s been engaged to Rosealee (Amy Irving), a fellow teacher and the widow of his former best friend, who was killed in Vietnam.
Joseph is exceptionally good at rationalizing why he’s not quite ready to tie the knot. His ailing mother has been a good excuse, and now, with word that the state school board is shuttering the two-room facility, he’s brooding about his future.
It’s at that point that 17-year-old vixen Catherine Wheeler (Amy Locane) arrives for the last semester. A short time later, she pops up at Joseph’s farm with her father (Gary Busey), looking for a stable for her horse. Joseph is obviously attracted to her, and eventually succumbs to her advances.
Barreto appears comfortable deflating sexual and social conventions, but the screen story is otherwise rather mundane. The filmmaker errs in his perfunctory, literal treatment of the book’s metaphoric elements: Joseph’s alter ego is a limping wolf, not indigenous to the area, that Catherine’s father plans to hunt and kill.
Hopper gets a rare opportunity to remind us that he’s a consummate performer. Without histrionics, he imbues the generally taciturn Joseph with humor and rage. Supporting turns from Hal Holbrook, as a sage country sawbones, and Busey are also colorful. But the two women aren’t playing at the level of the picture’s star.
Masterfully shot by Declan Quinn, “Carried Away” evokes the timeless, autumnal quality of the prairie. But it suffers from a slow pace and a score that favors the tale’s somber side.
The picture never truly finds its balance, despite Hopper’s assuredness. This slice of life is told with an arm’s-length distance that mutes its impact.