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Wyatt Earp

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Linden Ashby, Michael Madsen, Joanna Going, Jeff Fahey, Mark Harmon, Jobeth Williams, Mare Winningham, Catherine O'Hara, Isabella Rossellini.

REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., July 1, 1994

Wyatt Earp wasn't Gandhi, but you wouldn't know it to look at this weighty Western. It gives the famous lawman the Richard Attenborough treatment: a three-hour, cross-continental, epic look at the man's life in its entirety, complete with sweeping vistas and swollen orchestral score. Earp's life story is certainly deserving of a film. But the screenwriters -- Dan Gordon and director Lawrence Kasdan -- aren't content to tell the story; they try to use it as a metaphor for the taming of the American West (few Westerns are as laden with mythic pretensions as this one) and worse, they insist -- as Attenborough does -- on trying to explain Earp to us. “See?” they say, showing us Earp's father (Hackman) sermonizing about the importance of blood ties, “That's why he was so tight with his brothers.” “See? He was nice until his wife died. That's why he turned cold.” It's this “biography as student thesis” that gets numbing after a while. The first half is little more than psychological extrapolation, dispensed in quick bite-size scenes, full of dramatic shorthand -- tail-end of eulogy, Wyatt walks bitterly from wife's grave, cut -- so the writers can cram more material into the film. It all comes off as too sketchy and too obvious, and after 90 minutes, we're bloated with incidents but still hungry for satisfying drama. It's like we devoured a huge tub of popcorn; we're stuffed but feel empty. The second half might have made an affecting movie on its own. It focuses on Wyatt's law enforcement career and draws taut the tensions between the Earp brothers (Costner, Ashby, Madsen) and their wives (Winningham, Williams, O'Hara). Plus, it sings with the live-wire performance of Quaid as the tubercular Doc Holliday. Gaunt as a scarecrow but sporting a voluptuous Georgia accent, Quaid spouts courtly sarcasm with the edge of a terminal case. He looks to be having a big time. And he looks to be the only one. Most everybody else appears as grim and pained as dental patients. You almost expect it of Costner nowadays, but it doesn't help us feel Earp's pain. And it's disheartening to see artists like O'Hara and Hackman, whose brilliance lies in how they play humor, taking everything so seriously, not to mention Kasdan, whose other films (Body Heat, Big Chill) and other Western (Silverado) pulse with humor. Yes, this is a serious look at Wyatt Earp's life. Way too serious.
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