American counterculture and early ’70s values come flooding back like a peyote-induced dream in Gus Van Sant’s “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a far-out, meandering fantasy set on a ranch run by lesbians, from Tom Robbins’ 1973 cult novel. Unless the Fine Line release takes off as a cult item itself — which is doubtful — it will have trouble expanding the minds of those who lack a hippie past. Among the film’s many themes, the heroine’s search for sexual identity should appeal especially to female patrons.
Seen through the lens of the present, the mystical utopianism and women’s battle for sexual freedom look about a century old. “Cowgirls” doesn’t get a clear enough bead on the period, with the result that all its narrative risk-taking and stylistic fireworks frequently confuse rather than enlighten the viewer.
Missing from “Cowgirls” is the poetry of yearning and desperation running through Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.” Pic stays on the surface, without attempting any exploration of painful depths. Result is at best amusing; at worst, uninvolving, often confusing, and sometimes a little boring.
Main character, Sissy (Uma Thurman), is a 29-year-old virgin hippie whose delicate beauty is marred only by giant, phallus-like thumbs. Sissy has a contract with the Countess (John Hurt), a prancing drag queen, to model for feminine hygiene ads.
Leaving behind the flashy New York scene populated by the asthmatic Julian (Keanu Reeves) and his swinging pals, Sissy hitches cross-country to the Countess’s Oregon beauty farm, the Rubber Rose Ranch, to shoot another commercial.
At the ranch, however, a pack of rebellious, unwashed cowgirls, led by Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix, sister of River), foment an uprising against the Countess and his authoritarian hireling (Angie Dickinson), and kick out the guests.
Sissy, who’s sided with the cowgirls, finds love in the arms of Bonanza, and friendly sex with the Chink (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), a weird old Japanese-American who was raised by some Native Americans known as the Clock People and now awaits the Eternity of Joy.
The ideal community of work and friendship is disrupted when the cowgirls feed peyote to migrating flocks of cranes, causingan ecological scandal. The White House sends out the Army to wrest the ranch away from the femmes’ control, leading to an heroic confrontation.
Thurman’s sensual, little-girl presence keeps auds firmly on her side, no matter how absurd the rough-and-tumble situations. The cowgirls (many played by non-pros) have a surreal concreteness, especially brave, grinning Rain Phoenix, playing like a female version of a genre cowboy star.
In this upside-down context, professional thesps like Dickinson and Bracco stand out less. Morita’s armchair philosopher, talking in sententious literary phrases, makes little impact.
John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards’ imaginative visuals offer a new interpretation of the psychedelic spirit of the period.