B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
CLINT EASTWOOD MAY have won an Oscar for directing Unforgiven, and he may be a Hollywood treasure, but let's get a few things straight: (1) He is not an auteur; (2) He is not a moral savior; (3) His post-Dirty Harry movies are not richly meaningful, despite how hard they try to be.
Case in point: The Bridges of Madison County, which Eastwood has directed with the same calm, confident, reflective touch he used in Unforgiven and A Perfect World, appears at the surface level to be an intelligent musing about decisions, lost dreams and love. But take a closer look--looking past the quality production, seasoned acting and throngs of Hallmark Card-style epigrams--and the movie is pure, primitive fantasy.
There's nothing wrong with fantasy, but this is a housewife fantasy, and though discreet, it's still a bit condescending. The screenplay, based on the popular Robert James Waller novel, focuses on Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), an underappreciated homemaker living in a small Iowa town in 1965. It's an unsatisfying existence: Francesca has forfeited a career for her family, her kids ignore her, and her farmer husband's idea of affection is to tell her, "I can't sleep without you next to me," like she's an old pillow or something. Passion-wise, the most "action" Francesca sees is when she's barefoot on the porch whacking dusty rugs against a post.
That is, until Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a National Geographic photographer doing a series about covered bridges, drives up to her house to ask for directions. (Nevermind why a National Geographic photographer who's explored Africa would need to ask for directions in a small Iowa town.) The scene ends with the two hopping in Robert's truck to seek out that bridge. And boy, do they find a "bridge"--the kind they'd better keep "covered" or else. (The story's metaphors are a bit obvious, aren't they?)
Conveniently enough, Francesca's husband and children are away on a trip for the next four days, so the fantasy has plenty of time to linger over itself. For my money, the best part of The Bridges of Madison County is the first two days when Streep and Eastwood are still in the forbidden-fruit stage. They talk, she makes him dinner, and nothing has happened--but by Streep's fidgeting, you can tell she's really turned on. Streep is a world-class, turned-on fidgeter.
And what housewife wouldn't be turned on? Let's face it, if you're stuck in a farming town and some rugged, worldly dude comes along who looks like Clint Eastwood and treats you with respect you've never gotten anywhere else, what are you going to do, tell him to go away because you've got to iron? To make the fantasy complete, not only is Eastwood's character good in bed, he's got to leave in four days--so as not to ruin the fantasy--and what's more, he says he'll love her forever. (In some circles, this kind of fantasy is known as "having your cake and eating it too," which, given Streep's weight gain for this role, seems appropriate enough.)
Primitive stuff. Even Eastwood, who tries his best to look and act like a scruffy journalist, is really just playing another kind of cowboy--the wandering hero who rides along, sets things straight, and leaves his rescuees wondering, "Who was that camera-clad man?"
The problem with The Bridges of Madison County (aside from the fact that Eastwood is starting to look his age) comes from the fact that the filmmakers seem to think they're not really doing what they're doing. From the tony, self-serious atmosphere that develops, you'd think Eastwood actually believed he was making a movie with something substantial to say about decisions, sacrifices and (gasp) eternal love.
The movie works up quite a tizzy over the effect the affair has on Francesca's grown children, who learn about it for the first time in a letter she leaves to them along with her will. As the son and daughter (played with ineffective whimsy by Jim Haynie and Annie Corley) pick over the relics of the tryst, they warmly come to terms with their illusions about their parents, and the expectations they hold for their own marriages. They even drink a toast to their newfound understanding. Isn't that nice?
To be fair, Eastwood's direction is sensitive enough that even the most simplistic revelations might put a lump in your throat (actually, quite a few members of the audience were crying). But I rather miss the Eastwood who directed and starred in Play Misty for Me, which had all the cheesy poetry and quietly mushy romance of The Bridges of Madison County, but also featured a violently obsessed woman running around trying to take over the star's life alá Fatal Attraction. Now that's the kind of Eastwood movie we know and love.
The Bridges of Madison County is playing at Century Park (620-0750) and Century Gateway (792-9000) cinemas.
Cutline: Depth perception: Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep cling to the shallows in The Bridges of Madison County.
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