In "Shy People," which opens a one-week Oscar-qualifying run today at the Century City 14, director Andrei Konchalovsky envisions a cataclysmic confrontation between a shallow, sophisticated New Yorker and a puritanical, uneducated Louisiana bayou matriarch.
The result is a cataclysm, for sure--but not in the profoundly earth-shaking sense that Konchalovsky intended. It's an all-stops-out, often unintentionally hilarious disaster from which only Barbara Hershey, who was named best actress at Cannes for her efforts, emerges unscathed. Hershey is the right actress in the right role but in the wrong movie.
Jill Clayburgh is Diana, a well-off New York divorcee and free-lance writer who's doing a piece for Cosmopolitan on family trees and recalls that her own great-uncle went to Louisiana and became "some kind of outlaw." Why not give the piece a personal touch by going down and looking him up--or his descendants? Besides, she wants to get her 15-year-old daughter Grace (Martha Plimpton) away from cocaine and her own lover.
What she discovers in the isolated depths of the bayous is Ruth (Hershey), the still-young-but-worn second wife of her great uncle. This deeply possessive woman, who married at 12, hallows the memory of her husband who vanished in the mists 15 years ago but is still believed to be alive, at least in the spiritual sense, by his family.
Konchalovsky lays it on thick with all the stuff of melodrama at its most lurid. He sympathizes shamelessly with Ruth and pumps heavily obvious, self-important symbolism into Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges' silvery, Spanish moss-laden images. Diana arrives at Ruth's remote home, a large old house of faded but elegant simplicity, wearing white high heels--never mind how she manages to type her stories with her clawlike jungle red nails! Initially shy, Ruth starts filling in Diana about her family. There's Paulie (Pruitt Taylor Vance), who's "got one button missing"; Tommy (John Philbin), who's kept locked in a shed, and Mark (Don Swayze), the family's chief provider as a crab fisherman but perennial victim of poachers. The most nearly normal person is Mark's sweet, pregnant and understandably bored young wife Candy (Mare Winningham). There's yet another brother Michael (Merritt Butrick) whom Ruth regards as dead because he went "against our ways."
Konchalovsky and his co-writers, Marjorie David and Gerard Brach, want to show how Diana ultimately frees Ruth from fear and ignorance while Ruth returns Diana to the basic values and an old-fashioned sense of firm maternal responsibility. But Konchalovsky seems as determined to make Diana as incredible as to make Ruth believable: Ruth is finally capable of comprehending the paradoxical natures of good and evil and love and hate, which allows the Cajun accent-perfect Hershey to dig deeper than ever before into her resources as an actress. Meanwhile, Clayburgh's Diana is made to look so foolish you can't for a minute imagine Helen Gurley Brown hiring her.
If this cosmic city-country clash, served up with drugs, rape, incest and more, weren't already excessive, Konchalovsky throws in a message of ecological protest, foreshadowed by Ruth's remark in regard to a two-headed turtle that she "never saw nothin' like that till the oil companies came" and winding up with "Koyaanisquatsi"-like collages of nature befouled. In trying to say (rather than to reveal) so much so shrilly about American life and character in all its extremes, "Shy People" (MPAA-rated R for sex, violence and all-around raunchiness) ends up a travesty.
A Cannon Group release. Producers Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus. Director Andrei Konchalovsky. Screenplay Gerard Brach, Konchalovsky, Marjorie David; from a story by Konchalovsky. Camera Chris Menges. Music Tangerine Dream. Production designer Stephen Marsh. Costumes Katherine Dover. Second unit director Paul Baxley. Film editor Alain Jakubowicz. With Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick, John Philbin, Mare Winningham, Don Swayze, Pruitt Taylor Vince.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).