How to Make an American Quilt

The patchwork that is "How to Make an American Quilt" is ambitious, poetic, muddled and softer than the inside of a toasted marshmallow. If good intentions were automatically rewarded, this would be a runaway hit.

With:
Finn Dodd - Winona Ryder
Anna - Maya Angelou
Glady Joe - Anne Bancroft
Hy - Ellen Burstyn
Young Sophia - Samantha Mathis
Constance - Kate Nelligan
Em - Jean Simmons
Sophia - Lois Smith
Marianna - Alfre Woodard
Sally - Kate Capshaw
Young Anna - Maria Celedonio
Young Glady Joe - Claire Danes
Young Preston - Loren Dean
Mrs. Darling - Melinda Dillon
Young Em - Joanna Going
Young Hy - Alicia (Lecy) Goranson
Young Dean - Tim Guinee
Beck - Jared Leto
Sam - Dermot Mulroney
Dean - Derrick O'Connor
Aunt Pauline - Esther Rolle
Leon - Jonathan Schaech
Arthur - Rip Torn
Winston - Mykelti Williamson

The patchwork that is “How to Make an American Quilt” is ambitious, poetic, muddled and softer than the inside of a toasted marshmallow. If good intentions were automatically rewarded, this would be a runaway hit. But its often aimless and confused nature will be too daunting for most, resulting in no better than passable theatrical returns and OK life in ancillaries.

Finn Dodd (Winona Ryder) is 26 and confused. She’s wrestling with a thesis on handicraft and culture and on the cusp of marriage to her carpenter boyfriend, Sam (Dermot Mulroney). Seeking a bit of breathing space, she retreats to the small Northern California town of her youth and the sanctuary of a quilting circle of family and friends.

Jane Anderson’s adaptation of the Whitney Otto novel relies heavily on literary conceits, to its undoing. We are told that the challenge of making something whole from fragments requires “balance and harmony.” But there are no rules to reach that end other than to rely on instinct and be brave.

So, for those looking for connections, the craft of quiltmaking is a lot like life. Running parallel to the group’s project of a wedding quilt for Finn is the young woman’s personal search for balance and harmony. That quest runs through the life stories of the seven members of the bee. Each has a little life lesson to impart, gleaned from painful memories.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse tries valiantly not to make the mess of characters and incidents too ungainly or too symmetrical. It’s a significant challenge, considering the weight given flashbacks and the demands of providing each member of the sizable cast his or her moment.

The real dilemma is that this sweet, sincere tale doesn’t have a lot to tell that’s novel.

As an acting vehicle, “Quilt” is also a letdown. At best, cast members have a fleeting opportunity to display a glimmer of their talent. Ryder has the thankless task of being the cipher for the legion of characters past and present who tread on the carpet of this tale.

Still, several, including Alfre Woodard and Jean Simmons, manage to make their instants vivid. Joanna Going and Tim Guinee electrify one vignette that could well be a movie of its own. Tech credits provide a folksy veneer to the human comedy. Cameraman Janusz Kaminski takes great delight in painterly homages that vary from American Gothic to the Norman Rockwell oeuvre.

But dramatically, more ultimately proves less, and the jumble feels like it should have been torn apart and rethreaded with stronger material.

How to Make an American Quilt

Production: A Universal release of an Amblin Entertainment production. Produced by Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford. Executive producers, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Deborah Jelin Newmyer. Co-producer, Ruth Myers. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Screenplay, Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Whitney Otto.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Janusz Kaminski; editor, Jill Bilock; music, Thomas Newman; production design, Leslie Dilley; art direction, Ed Verreaux; set design, Evelyne Barbier, William J. Law III, Josh Lusby; set decoration, Marvin March; costume design, Ruth Myers; sound (DTS Stereo), Russell Williams II; assistant director, Sergio-Mimica Gezzan; second unit director, Dilley; second unit camera, Lawrence Blanford; casting, Risa Bramon Garcia, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Beverly Connection, L.A., Sept. 23 , 1995. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 min.

With: Finn Dodd - Winona Ryder
Anna - Maya Angelou
Glady Joe - Anne Bancroft
Hy - Ellen Burstyn
Young Sophia - Samantha Mathis
Constance - Kate Nelligan
Em - Jean Simmons
Sophia - Lois Smith
Marianna - Alfre Woodard
Sally - Kate Capshaw
Young Anna - Maria Celedonio
Young Glady Joe - Claire Danes
Young Preston - Loren Dean
Mrs. Darling - Melinda Dillon
Young Em - Joanna Going
Young Hy - Alicia (Lecy) Goranson
Young Dean - Tim Guinee
Beck - Jared Leto
Sam - Dermot Mulroney
Dean - Derrick O'Connor
Aunt Pauline - Esther Rolle
Leon - Jonathan Schaech
Arthur - Rip Torn
Winston - Mykelti Williamson

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