A satire of health fanaticism in turn-of-the-century America, “The Road to Wellville” is a curiosity of the first order. Amusing without being particularly funny, and not especially involving in terms of its characters or melodrama, Alan Parker’s unzipped cereal comedy is more something to gape at in wonderment, so persistently odd and unusual are its setting and tone. Broadly acted one-of-a-kind offering will probably receive enough critical support from some quarters to give it a good send-off in upscale urban situations, but wider potential is uncertain.
Based on T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1992 fact-based historical novel, physically resplendent picture takes a comical look at the shenanigans perpetrated in the name of good health at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, circa 1907. Founded by the Seventh Day Adventists, impeccably appointed lakeside spa has become the personal laboratory of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins), a righteous physician, inventor and philosophical crusader who thunders on to his affluent clients about the evils of meat, smoking, alcohol and sex, and the virtues of Bulgarian yogurt and frequent enemas.
Among those arriving to take the cure this fall season are Will and Eleanor Lightbody (Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda), an attractive young cou-
ple who could use a little time alone to sort out their problems. Instead, they are assigned to separate rooms (“Sex,” Dr. Kellogg insists, “is the sewer drain of a healthy body.”) and put on rigorous regimes to cure what ails them. Will finds himself sexually stimulated by many of the esoteric treatments to which he’s submitted, particularly the enemas as administered by lovely Nurse Graves (Traci Lind).
Also turning up in the Michigan boom town is Charles Ossining (John Cusack), who hopes to strike it rich by producing a successful new cornflake breakfast food. His crooked partner, Bender (Michael Lerner), however, has squandered the investment money, so the pair recruit Kellogg’s derelict adopted son, George (a practically unrecognizable Dana Carvey), to make a reckless stab at cashing in on the famous name.
A fair amount of the running time is devoted to the rather extraordinary detailing of the assorted treatments at “the San,” from the bizarre to the mundane.
Opening on a gleeful and enchanting note, with a row of mostly older and overweight ladies laughing in orchestrated unison, the film proves as energetic as its central character as it documents the vibrating machines, electric blankets, dunkings and dousings, current-fed baths and rear-end probings endorsed by Kellogg, as well as the genitally stimulating belt and “womb manipulation” practiced by the doctor’s more erotically inclined competitors. Many cast members, notably Broderick, perform much of the film in a state of undress.
The sheer novelty of all this, as well as the rare and tantalizing depiction of Teddy Roosevelt’s America and the unstressed but obvious parallels of these health fads to those of modern times, maintain a kind of grinning interest through pic’s first half.
But the lack of compelling or inventive narrative incidents, coupled with characters who uniformly inspire no more than lukewarm enthusiasm, leaves the second half flailing about in an increasingly desperate search for comic cappers and dramatic resolution.
As eccentric and magnetic as he is, Hopkins’ Kellogg, decked out in white finery, wire-rimmed glasses, close-cropped hair, moustache and goatee, goofy rabbit-like buck teeth and an accent that ranges from Southern riverboat captain to John Huston, remains a figure devoid of character development or personal quest. The only burr in his saddle is his anarchic son, who keeps turning up to demand money and terrorize his guests.
Subplot involving Ossining’s attempt to crack the cornflake market involves a lot of broad venality and humor that doesn’t really come off. By contrast, the running gag of Will’s constant sexual excitement in a repressed environment should probably have been played more for out-and-out bedroom farce; as it is, there’s a degree of hesitancy to his furtive dalliances with his nurse and fellow patient Ida Muntz (Lara Flynn Boyle) that deflates the potential hilarity.
Faring a bit better is Fonda’s Eleanor, who is awakened to the notion of liberated female sexuality by her hefty friend Virginia (jovial, insinuating Camryn Manheim) and attracts the attention of therapists Dr. Lionel Badger (Colm Meaney) and the Teutonic Dr. Spitzvogel (Norbert Weisser), whose notions of keeping bodily systems flowing run directly contrary to Kellogg’s.
While Parker keeps the proceedings zippy and colorful, only at moments is he able to hit what feels like the precise tone required for this unusual piece. There is too great a gap between the period re-creation — its detail and richness splendidly attended to by production designer Brian Morris, costume designer Penny Rose, lenser Peter Biziou, composer Rachel Portman and others — and the broad, one-note nature of the characterizations.
Curiously, plot at one point focuses intently on four mysterious deaths that occur simultaneously at the San, but film then just as mysteriously drops them, making nothing of the development.
Parker deserves quite a few points for heading way off the beaten path here, but his compass unfortunately hasn’t given him the exact coordinates he needed to reach his seriocomic destination.