Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

1993, R, 101 min. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Uma Thurman, John Hurt, Rain Phoenix, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Keanu Reeves, Lorraine Bracco, Angie Dickinson, Buck Henry.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 20, 1994

What this film adaptation of Tom Robbins' popular Seventies novel may ultimately prove is that when the prevailing wisdom regards a particular book as “unfilmable,” adapters should heed the warning rather than accept the challenge. For a number of reasons, this movie has been a long time in coming -- both in the undertaking and the post-production tinkering. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the movie does not work, though it's difficult to sort out the “what is” from the “what was” and “what might have been.” Expectations ran high when Van Sant, the director of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, announced that he was writing and directing a screen adaptation of the much-beloved cultural landmark Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The affinities between Robbins and Van Sant extend beyond their both being residents of the American Northwest; it is easy to see how this novel meshed with Van Sant's recurrent thematics of road stories and social outsiders. Additionally, the casting of Uma Thurman as the story's heroine Sissy Hankshaw, the girl with oversized thumbs who takes to hitchhiking as a bird does to flight, seems just about perfect. Readied for release last fall, the media machinery prepared an all-out blitz. Thurman graced numerous magazine covers, advertising was placed nationally, and musician k.d. lang released a soundtrack album of the music she performed and co-supervised with her writing partner Ben Mink. Then, following some brutal advance screenings, the bloom was cast from the rose and Van Sant returned to the editing room to fashion a new version of the movie. So, the fact that the movie, as we now have it, is uneven in tone, barely coherent, and held together largely by a connective voiceover narration (delivered by novelist Tom Robbins) comes hardly as any surprise. Of course, we can only deal here with the finished product, but it is hard to imagine that there ever existed a version that could have been terribly worse. Clearly, there is much that has been deleted: for example, the whole Clockpeople subplot, whose only remaining screen trace is the looming background clock depicted in the print advertising campaign (and now only serves to make the movie more incoherent). There is also an uneasy mixture of tone throughout that see-saws between the realistic, the fantastic, the comic, and the parabolic. Perhaps if more of the movie's connective tissue remained intact, the transitions would seem less jerky. But then again, maybe not. We also get hung up on the wealth of characters and individual performances. None of them are ever on screen long enough to establish them clearly, and then, to boot, Cowgirls is punctuated with a continuing array of star cameos from people like Roseanne Arnold, Ken Kesey, Crispin Glover, Victoria Williams, and William Burroughs. As one of the lead characters, Bonanza Jellybean, Rain Phoenix makes an inauspicious acting debut. On the opposite end, John Hurt's rendition of The Countess is outlandishly over-the-top. Thurman, however, is always enthralling to watch, striking poses and engulfing the scenery with every move she makes. The movie's primary failing may belong more correctly, I suspect, to the inadequacies of the source novel. Robbins' writing is so full of indulgent word-play and aimless tangents that he has become the king of the “sounds good/means nothing” school of writing. When all his language games are removed from the story in order to hone a screenplay, the remainder leaves very little in terms of plot. What tumbles together in the novel feels very fractured in the movie. Still, the pleasure of seeing Van Sant's impeccable imagery makes Cowgirls worth seeing for fans. His New York sequences that owe a debt to Warhol, the Western landscapes that resemble Ansel Adams photographs, the lithe image of a woman guiding her freakish thumbs through a roadside ballet -- all are stunning moments that exist only inside this film.

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Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Gus Van Sant, Uma Thurman, John Hurt, Rain Phoenix, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Keanu Reeves, Lorraine Bracco, Angie Dickinson, Buck Henry

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