Directed by Jon Avnet. Starring Elijah Wood, Kevin Costner, Mare Winningham, Lexi Randall, Christine Baranski, Gary Basaraba. (1994, PG-13, 126 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 4, 1994
To paraphrase an old slogan: The War is not healthy for children or other movie-goers. Despite its no-doubt good intentions and its wholesome PG-13 rating, The War is a meandering mish-mash of empty symbols and signposts. Not even the presence of mega-star Kevin Costner in a sizable supporting role (and delivering some of his best recent work) can snap this project into reasonable shape. Set in rural Mississippi during the summer of 1970, director Avnet seems to be trying to recapture with The War some of that Southern-steeped charm that wooed audiences his last time out with Fried Green Tomatoes. But the fact remains that this debut script by Kathy McWorter is just all over the map. While the journey takes us past some interesting sights, the trip never really arrives anywhere. It's a movie with lots of elements but no unified engine. Stu (Wood) and Lidia (Randall) Simmons' lives have irrevocably changed since their father (Costner) went to Vietnam. While he was gone, the Simmons lost their home (though the reasons are never clearly explained) and moved to a run-down dwelling. Mother Simmons (Winningham, in a woefully slight role) now works two jobs to support her family. Once dad returns he is still unable to maintain a job because of serious post-traumatic stress syndrome (he has recurring combat nightmares highlighted by the guilt he feels for the fate of his best buddy). Despite this, he still feels positive about his government and the possibility of making a success of oneself in America, even though all his personal evidence points to the contrary. But The War is not Dad's story; it's supposed to be his children's story. The events take place during summer vacation and the central activity revolves around building a treehouse. First, the boys and girls must learn to share the treehouse and take turns. And in summer school, caucasian Lidia bravely defends the rights of her best girlfriends, who are black, from a racist schoolteacher. And then there are the fearsome Lipnickis, a gaggle of dirty and mistreated bullies who live with their alcoholic father in a junkyard (the junkyard, by the way, harbors remnants from the old Simmons homestead, which the kids use to build their treehouse). The rotten Lipnickis beat up on everyone (even their dad provokes a fight with the Simmons' dad, who, himself, is trying to give up his killing ways and turn the other cheek) and, of course, the brood want the treehouse for themselves. A few life-and-death situations also rear their episodic heads and, eventually, all the kids have to learn to get along together. Do we have a Vietnam allegory here or what? The War tries to bring it all back home, but as far as I can see, the whole thing is up a tree.