A highly unusual and difficult romance has been touchingly handled in "The Whole Wide World." This indie production recounts the largely platonic but true-life relationship between a small-townschoolteacher and Robert E. Howard, creator of "Conan the Barbarian" and other 1930s pulp fiction classics.

A highly unusual and difficult romance has been forthrightly and touchingly handled in “The Whole Wide World.” Essentially a two-hander superbly acted by Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger, this well-appointed indie production recounts the largely platonic but deep true-life relationship between a small-town Texas schoolteacher and Robert E. Howard, creator of “Conan the Barbarian” and other 1930s pulp fiction classics. Intimate, unsensational quality of the story represents both its artistic plus and its commercial liability, although good reviews and careful nurturing could pay off in a small way for an enterprising distrib.

Howard’s bizarre fantasy creations, which also included “Red Sonja,””Kull the Conqueror” and “Solomon Kane,” are far better known than his name, but the cognescenti will no doubt be drawn to the film to learn something about this undeniably distinctive, highly unlikely character, who lived with his parents at their rural house and shouted his prose out while he typed it.

Tale, beginning in 1933, is related from the p.o.v. of Novalyne Price, upon whose recent memoir the film is based. Price (Zellweger), a proper young Texas woman, teaches school but aspires to be a writer herself, and so arranges to be introduced to Howard (D’Onofrio), a rather mysterious and wild figure viewed as “crazy” by the conservative local citizens, who are loath to take seriously someone who turns out brutal and sexy sword-and-sorcery tales for the magazine Weird Tales.

Price, however, is intrigued by this unpredictable young man, whose idea of a good time is driving his companion around the Texas hill country in his convertible and sounding off about his work. Both cocky and awkward, Howard is endlessly egotistical about his own abilities and reflexively condescending to writers who simply aim to document real life, whose number includes Price.

Pic has no dramatic aspirations other than to chart the course of the pair’s three-year relationship, which encompassed intense artistic and emotional communion as well as periods of anger and noncommunication. After a long while, the two briefly lurch toward a passionate involvement, but there is no suggestion they ever slept together, rendering this the most chaste screen romance in recent memory.

Michael Scott Myers’ sensitive script minutely charts the turbulent ups and downs of the couple’s relationship, from Howard’s polite efforts to dress neatly and meet his date’s mother to his rantings that his creative process can never permit the intrusion of marriage in his life. Main obstacles to their truly hooking up seem to have been Howard’s uncommon devotion to his ailing mother (Ann Wedgeworth), his preening self-regard and his unwillingness to meet another person halfway, although pic hints at some other psychological malady running deep in his personality.

While Price’s character is fully fleshed out, film’s main drawback is that it can never truly get under the skin of Howard’s weirdness. There is no question about the man’s intense artistic drive, but it’s not clear where it came from or how it connects to other aspects of his life. How a young man almost literally in the middle of nowhere came up with his fantastic characters and tales remains a mystery to the end.

All the same, the decidedly offbeat relationship has been examined by Myers and director Dan Ireland in fine detail, and the frequent shifts in emotional direction are splendidly indicated by D’Onofrio and Zellweger, who are onscreen together for most of the film’s nearly two hours.

D’Onofrio vibrantly portrays Howard as an outsize artist of nearly Hemingwayesque stature, boastfulness and psychological turmoil, a man living in a private universe he is able to transform for artistic purposes. When he cares to, Howard can be charming and engaging, but he is ultimately out of reach, unable to exist on the mundane terms settled for by most of humanity.

Conversely, Price is a bright but ordinary woman who pushes herself in an attempt to understand a manner of man not commonly found on the Texas plains. But she remains restrained enough not to pursue Howard to the limit, pulling back when he can’t conform to certain of her expectations. Zellweger’s portrait of this prim yet bold woman is enormously appealing and illuminating, repping a possible career turning point for the actress.

Ireland, a former film festival exec and producer making his directorial debut, serves the material and his actors responsively, taking a straightforward , up-close approach. Lack of subplots, other significant characters and multiple dramatic developments make for a somewhat languid and unvarying pace, and ending is on the sticky side, although it will open the tear ducts of viewers who engage with the story.

Nicely shot in widescreen by Claudio Rocha and prettily evocative of its sparsely populated, sunbaked setting, pic offers discreet and traditional pleasures that are exceedingly rare on the screen today. In certain quarters, these qualities will be viewed as square and unhip, but they will be treasured in others.

The Whole Wide World

Production

A Kushner-Locke presentation in association with Cineville. Produced by Carl-Jan Colpaert, Dan Ireland, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kevin Reidy. Executive producers, Donald Kushner, Peter Locke. Co-executive producer, Robert Strauss. Co-producers, Benjamin Mouton, Michael Scott Myers. Directed by Dan Ireland. Screenplay, Michael Scott Myers, based on the memoir "One Who Walked Alone" by Novalyne Price Ellis.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Camera Systems of Clairmont widescreen), Claudio Rocha; editor, Luis Colina; music, Harry Gregson-Williams, Hans Zimmer; production design, John Frick; set decoration, Terri L. Wright; costume design, Gail McMullen; sound (Dolby), Ken Segal; line producer, Jill Silverthorne; assistant directors, Jonathan Winfrey, Marshall Crosby; casting, Laurel Smith. Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, L.A., Jan. 16, 1996. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 111 min.

With

Robert E. Howard - Vincent D'Onofrio Novalyne Price - Renee Zellweger Mrs. Howard - Ann Wedgeworth Dr. Howard - Harve Presnell Clyde Smith - Benjamin Mouton Enid - Helen Cates Truett - Chris Shearer
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