My Own Private Idaho
1991, R, 102 min. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Flea, Chiara Caselli, Udo Kier.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 18, 1991
My Own Private Idaho is a story about a narcoleptic gay male hustler. There. That's easy enough to summarize on this first go-round. But that's only a beginning. For this is an ambitious movie; a movie about roots and rootlessness, about reclaiming the past and seizing the future, about the ways of the street and the life of the road, about wishes and memories and swimming upstream (like the salmon we see in montages at both the beginning and end of the movie). Director Van Sant, following his black-and-white story of unrequited homosexual love of a skid row liquor store clerk for a straight Mexican immigrant in Mala Noche and his breakthrough film about a band of junkie pill thieves, Drugstore Cowboy, here lays claim to being one of the most adventurous filmmakers at work in the U.S. today. Phoenix plays Mike Waters, the young ragamuffin hustler mentioned above who begins to twitch and folds into a lifeless, sleeping bundle whenever situations become too difficult or remind him of his childhood and his mother. This happens often. Reeves plays his best friend Scott Favor, another hustler who's in it for the money as well the aggravation it brings his wealthy father, the mayor of Portland (where much of this movie takes place). Like Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Scott's temporarily slumming on the fringes while waiting for his inheritance (he's a week shy of his 21st birthday and his dad has a bad heart). The Shakespeare refereneces are deliberate. Themes and passages from Henry IV are reworked into modern English, Shakespeare's Boar's Head Tavern becomes a hotel for derelicts, the botched Gadshill robbery is restaged for the urban landscape, Shakespearean speeches are fractured into contemporary dialogue and the role of Falstaff has mutated into the character of Bob, an overweight cocaine-addicted chicken hawk (played with stunning gusto by Richert, himself known as the director of off-beat movie gems like Winter Kills and Success). These connections to the Bard are both the movie's glory and stumbling block. The audacity of the attempt is exciting to watch although its reach often extends further than its grasp. Reeves, in particular, seems stilted and aloof at times, though it must be said that such posture also befits his character. Mike and Scott take off for Idaho (the land of the imagination) in a search for Mike's long-gone mother. Mike is also in love with Scott, who is kinder to Mike than to most other people (Scott cradles Mike in pieta poses and protects him in his somnolence), though Scott seems predominantly heterosexual despite his gay hustling. Van Sant's filmmaking combines a unique blend of gritty street realism and carefully composed stylizations. Apart from the Shakespearean narrative, My Own Private Idaho employs some breathtaking visual frills (like the repeated trope of the time-lapsed cloud movement and the movie's stand-out sequence in which the cover boys on a bunch of porn magazines displayed on a bookstore rack come to life and initiate a telling dialogue amongst themselves). My Own Private Idaho Idaho is a movie that takes risks and some of them work better than others. But it's a daredevil's ride that keeps you glued with fascination.