Straight Story, The

     When you think sentimental Americana, maybe Disney comes to mind, but David Lynch would probably be the last name on your lips. Lynch is known for making really strange, disturbing films like Lost Highway and Blue Velvet. He also created the weirdest TV show ever, "Twin Peaks." But it really must be nearing the apocalypse, because now Lynch has actually directed a sentimental Americana film produced by Disney. I think Lynch realized that this film is out of character for him, which is at least part of the reason why itís called The Straight Story. Itís Lynchís "straight" movie; itís not science fiction--in fact, itís based on a true story--and there are no gruesome murders involved. It even has a simple, straight plot line. But "straight" isnít just a reflexive term. It also refers to the family name of the main character--Alvin Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth (The Natural, The Two Jakes). Alvin is an old man who lives alone except for his mentally disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek of Affliction and Carrie). Alvin is a stubborn old man--his health is bad, but he doesnít want to change his habits. He still smokes and eats a lot of meat. His estranged brother Lyle, played by Harry Dean Stanton (also in two other Lynch films: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Wild at Heart), has just had a stroke, and now Alvinís afraid he may not get to make up with his brother before one of them dies. So he resolves to travel from his small town in Iowa to Lyleís house in Wisconsin. But Alvin doesnít have a driverís license, and he wants to do things his way. He decides to drive his lawnmower across middle America.

     So, even though itís a true story, and touching and Disney, itís still got that weird, Lynchian flavor, both in subject matter and execution. As he did in Blue Velvet, Lynch takes the lid off of middle American life and shows us the weird stuff going on around the edges. Even the simplest, most common events take on a certain tinge of the strange and surrealistic when framed by Lynchís camera. But unlike in Blue Velvet, the sentimentality and sweetness are not revealed to be mere artifice overlaying a deeper level of violence and depravity. The sentimentality and sweetness are real and sincerely meant this time; they are what is lying beneath all that strangeness.

     The Straight Story is not just the story of Alvinís trek across America to see his brother. Along the way, Alvin reveals his story, piece by piece, confessing himself to his fellow Americans (in fact, he tells the final part of his story to a priest), just as they confess themselves to him. Many of the people he meets along the way have secret, hidden wounds, and when they meet Alvin everything comes out. And somehow Alvin helps them to solve their problems, to feel better about themselves, to assuage their grief. The whole movie is a long healing process, a sealing up of old wounds. Itís also an examination of life in middle America.

     But itís also a little schmaltzy. Alvin goes along the country, dispensing homespun wisdom, meeting only kind strangers, and leaving only happy, satisfied people in his wake. He tells everyone little parables about the importance of family, convinces a pregnant teen to return home to her parents, tries to reconcile a bickering pair of twins. A lot of corny dialogue is bandied about.

     Then again, a less talented director would have made an even cornier movie. In numerous scenes we see Lynchís subtle touch at work. Rather than milk it for as much tear- jerking sentiment as possible, he often merely keeps the camera centered on Farnsworthís extremely expressive face. And thereís often a great simplistic eloquence to the dialogue. Alvin says what he has to in plain language, then stops talking.

     Of course the sentimentality of The Straight Story isnít something completely new to Lynch, as I suggested before in reference to Blue Velvet. In all of his movies, Lynch has had a certain undercurrent of corniness, a tinge of self-indulgent mawkishness. But usually it was tempered and made ironic by all the nastiness and evil surrounding it. Or, as in Blue Velvet, it was revealed to be a shield behind which the evil lurked. The Straight Story is like a Blue Velvet that doesnít get evil. The surface of sentiment is never broken; or rather, the weirdness is the surface which is broken to reveal only comfortable, good old Americana. Underneath our exterior strangeness, Lynch seems to be saying, we are all the same, all one family, and so weíve all got to stick together.

     Itís a nice message, and there are some great scenes in this film with some great acting that convey that message in a very moving way. However, on the whole this is a much softer, weaker film than weíre accustomed to seeing from David Lynch. Itís nice to know that he has this kind of range, but now Iíd like to see him leave this Disney stuff behind and get back to the exciting, strange, innovative stuff he was doing before.

Jim Genzano




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