Transferring “King Lear” to the American Midwest may be a crackerjack idea, but “A Thousand Acres” leaves Shakespeare stranded in the high corn. Owing more to the spirit of Oprah than to the Bard, pic serves up an earnest but unconvincing stew of received notions about family dysfunction, awkwardly put across by a script wheezing with melodramatic contrivances. Effort to turn a searing, classic meditation on monarchy and madness into a down-home women’s weepie produces an odd, often mawkish focus on the tale’s latter-day Goneril and Regan, while its Lear and Cordelia are almost forgotten by the midpoint. The resulting mish-mash, which toplines Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange, will have to rely on star power to claim more than a so-so B.O. inheritance.
Films like this that fail are always a shame since Hollywood allots so little screen space to ordinary American families struggling with recognizable dilemmas. Given that “American” is a key part of that formulation, though, it must be wondered why this assignment was handed not only to an Australian director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, but also to a screenwriter from Down Under, frequent Jane Campion collaborator Laura Jones. Persuasive regional flavor and sharply rendered rural locutions and details might have given this tale a much-needed air of authenticity.
Of the antipodeans in charge, Jones was evidently the greater liability. The liberties she has taken with Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-winning novel are suggested in the disclaimer, “Dialogue and certain credits and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.” Those purposes, however, are ones that Jones’ script fails with irritating thoroughness.
The premise is rock-solid. Widower Larry Cook (Jason Robards) still farms the flat, fertile spread once plowed by his dad and granddad. Two of his daughters live nearby with husbands who are also farmers. Rose (Pfeiffer) and Peter Lewis (Kevin Anderson) have two girls. Ginny (Lange) and Ty Smith (Keith Carradine) have no kids but seem quite content in their marriage. Larry’s youngest daughter , Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to whom he was always especially close, now lives in a city where she practices law.
Ginny, who narrates the tale, is a trusting, open sort, especially when contrasted with the high-strung, short-tempered Rose, who has recently had a mastectomy but is sure she’s headed for full recovery. Both women are surprised when Larry announces his plan to deed his farm to his three daughters. Caroline, though, is the one who voices reservations. Her doubts are sensible, lawyerly qualms, but they sting his pride and provoke him into bitterly writing her out of the plan and handing over the land to Rose and Ginny.
As in Shakespeare, the patriarch’s actions start out willful but quickly veer toward the irrational. Yet never once in this modern setting do we hear words such as “Alzheimer’s” or “senility.” The reason: the film can’t afford for us to see Larry as sick since it’s determined to use him as the bogyman.
Roughly 50 minutes into the tale comes the scene where Rose breaks down to Ginny and spills the beans: Daddy used to rape not only her, she says, but Ginny as well. Ginny doesn’t recall such incidents from her childhood, but Rose gradually convinces her of their truth. With this same revelation, the film itself launches into a realm of psychobabble cliche and melodramatic overkill, never to return.
In fact, the drama changes markedly in two ways after this crucial scene. For one, all chances of a nuanced consideration of how grown children deal with inheritances and aging, ailing parents are thrown out the window, and with them go the dramatic uses of Larry and Caroline, who haphazardly fade from the tale from then on.
Second, the film torques itself into a mode of constant revelations and outbursts, such that almost every scene arrives fraught with incident and psychodrama, no matter how unlikely or overripe.Considering that Moorhouse made one the best Australian directorial debuts of the last decade with “Proof,” a small film of great precision and insight, it’s a shame that with this film and “How to Make an American Quilt” she seems to have consigned herself to a world of big-budget, broad-stroke Americana, where her skills are still evident but noticeably diluted. It’s likewise regrettable that she’s able to make so little use here of Leigh and Robards, who are as good as they can be in thankless roles.
Lange and Pfeiffer are well-matched and generally fare better, even though they too are circumscribed by the lackluster writing.
The film’s standout perf, meanwhile, comes from Keith Carradine, who takes the relatively small role of Ginny’s husband and manages to give it a degree of shading and dignity-unto-desperation.