The Austin Chronicle

The Grass Harp

Rated PG, 107 min. Directed by Charles Matthau. Starring Piper Laurie, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Edward Furlong, Nell Carter, Jack Lemmon, Mary Steenburgen, Charles Durning, Joe Don Baker, Roddy McDowall.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 15, 1996

The memory fiction of Truman Capote often tells the story of a sensitive adolescent growing up in the company of older women, of a life forever shaped by undying affection and Southern eccentricity. In the film version of The Grass Harp, which is based on the autobiographical novella of the same name, the young man -- orphaned at an early age, living with two spinster aunts -- seems vaguely unconnected to the feminine psyche of the household in which he is being raised. The failing is due, in large part, to the performance of the vaguely unconnected Furlong. An actor of limited emotional range, Furlong always looks as if he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. To be fair, however, the direction of Matthau fils must also share the blame for the film's failure to capture the essence of Capote. Though The Grass Harp is clearly a labor of love, it's an awkward piece. Too prose-bound for its own good, it never fully realizes its potential as a movie. Luckily, with the exception of Furlong, the cast acquits itself well. Playing roles contrary to expectations, Laurie and Spacek are marvelous: As the soft-spoken and dreamy Aunt Dolly, Laurie convincingly plays against type, her performance embodying the film's fragile soul, while Spacek is surprisingly sympathetic as the hard-hearted Aunt Verena, a character whose seeming one-dimensionality is but a facade. (Interestingly enough, these two actresses, who play sisters here, were mother and daughter in Carrie 20 years ago.) But even these performances can't make up for the film's inability to create the world so beautifully evoked by Capote on the written page. The Grass Harp is a delicate instrument that must be played in an accomplished fashion, if it is to be music to the senses. Anything short of that just won't do.

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