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MOVIE REVIEWS : Pitifully Dreary 'Stars' Belongs Behind Bars

April 15, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

It is impossible to delineate properly all the ways in which "Stars and Bars" derails, but it does. Dear heaven, it does. It's the Southern Gothic odyssey of an upper-class English art historian (Daniel Day-Lewis) working for an American art auction house and sent to deepest Georgia to bid on a previously unknown Renoir.

The intention of reflecting wittily--and cattily--on the culture clash that might ensue somehow implodes. The large funny moments die before they work themselves out, such as the one at a vast indoor-atrium hotel in which Day-Lewis must navigate a canoe across a foot-deep body of water to the "Indian Village" side of the lobby. The small, shaggy-dog moments, like the blind sister at the family mansion who sees better than you or I, do not play at all.

And one of the niftiest collections of actor-comedians since David Byrne's "True Stories" is left higher and far drier than that canoe: Harry Dean Stanton, Joan Cusack, Spalding Gray, Glenne Headly, Will Patton and Martha Plimpton. Sympathies all around.

"Stars and Bars" was directed by Pat O'Connor, whose previous heavily dramatic "Cal" seems to have prepared him not at all for rustic comedy. William Boyd did the adaptation from his own book. You suspect that the book was singular and daft, but suspicions are all you're going to get because every foot of the movie moves with the struggle of a insect on flypaper.

Day-Lewis plays most of the first New York section in a miasma of subdued viciousness. Little wonder, since he has been almost kidnaped by his boss's daughter (Laurie Metcalf), who has unilaterally declared them engaged. The Georgia section, Snopes humor division, is somewhat heavier on physical comedy, and the film ends back in New York with Day-Lewis scampering out of a second-story window and across all Manhattan, stark naked in pouring rain.

I cannot recall ever having felt such pity for an actor in my life.

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