Well-mounted and very traditional, “Of Mice and Men” honorably serves John Steinbeck’s classic story of two Depression-era drifters without bringing anything new to it. Fine performances down the line and sensitive handling justify this attempt to introduce a new generation to the small tragedy of George and Lennie, although lack of any edge or fresh motivation to tell the tale will keep enthusiasm, and B.O. results, at a moderate level.
First published as a novel in 1937, “Of Mice and Men” has had continued life as a Broadway play, a Hollywood film starring Lon Chaney and Burgess Meredith, and a 1980 stage piece at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater that featured John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, who repeat their roles here.
Set in a lonely world of itinerant men in 1930, drama has a simplicity and a kind of gruff sentimentality that makes for almost sure-fire pathos if done properly. It’s a story of vulnerable creatures–human and animal–and how a rough world makes life a very tenuous matter for those without a proper set of defenses.
Horton Foote’s intelligent adaptation begins with George and Lennie fleeing a posse of dogs and armed men across the sunbaked California countryside. However, they are not at loose ends for long, as they have jobs lined up at a farm near Soledad, where acres of wheat need harvesting.
George (Sinise) is a quick-witted man of few but well-chosen words with no family or money to his name. His only charge is Lennie (Malkovich), a lumbering simpleton who has the mind of a child but the strength of an ox. People can’t quite understand why George has saddled himself with Lennie, and George spews out his resentment of his companion in one early scene, but they’ve gone as far as choosing a small spread that they hope to buy if they can earn enough money.
Dramatic gears start turning when the farm boss’s belligerent son Curley (Casey Siemaszko) starts picking on Lennie. Before long, Curley’s lovely, lonely wife (Sherilyn Fenn) begins hanging around the bunkhouse and barn, seemingly with an eye for George.
Story’s subsequent small events have a withering old farmhand (Ray Walston) coming apart when his ancient dog is taken out to be shot, after which he proposes to join with the new arrivals in buying a place, and Lennie crushing Curley’s hand after the latter provokes a fistfight.
Not knowing his own strength, Lennie accidentally kills the tiny puppy he’s adopted, then manages to tragically do the same to Curley’s wife, who has made the mistake of offering him some tenderness and intimacy. Both George and the audience must come to terms with the sad inevitability of the situation’s resolution.
Captured in lovely, burnished hues by lenser Kenneth MacMillan and evocatively realized by production designer David Gropman, the working world of the men is a hot, dusty place devoid of emotional outlets and career possibilities, and could not look more different from the studio-bound Lewis Milestone rendition of more than 50 years ago.
If memory serves, other alterations engineered by Foote and Sinise include rounding out the wife’s character (never given a name by Steinbeck) to emphasize her need for some human interaction; building up the role of a black animal hand (Joe Morton) who has a meaningful exchange with Lennie, the farm’s other total outcast; and changing the nature of Lennie’s death.
Performances are sterling. Malkovich’s odd looks, slightly crossed eyes and slurred speech are perfect tools with which to build a convincing Lennie. Even if the actor is not the giant described, he conveys the requisite gentleness and strength, as well as the sense of not being able to help himself when stirred to a rage.
Sinise is surprisingly effective, bringing to his role a reedy quality that contains both bitterness and qualified hope for better times ahead. His reticence makes believable his admission to the wife that he’s never had a sweetheart, and the harshness of the life he’s led shows through his good looks.
Outstanding supporting turn is delivered by Walston, who has rarely had the opportunity to shine on-screen as he does as the washed-up worker looking for a comforting way to end his days. Fenn hits a good combination of flirtatiousness and need as the ill-fated wife, and John Terry is quietly notable as the evenhanded crew foreman. Solid in more one-note performances are Casey Siemaszko as the nasty Curley and Joe Morton as the beleaguered Crooks.
Returning to the screen after his failed first feature, “Miles From Home,” and his stage success with “The Grapes of Wrath,” Sinise demonstrates that he knows how to deliver the dramatic goods on film, even if his interpretation of the work is very straightforward. While not especially exciting, this adaptation still proves emotionally engaging and somewhat moving.
Action is underlined with subtle effectiveness by Mark Isham’s fine score.