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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Twister': A Kansas Quite Unlike Dorothy's


Michael Almereyda's "Twister" (at the Nuart) is set in a modern boozy Kansas, where flaky rich kids float off on a sea of alcohol and boredom. It's a movie with a slight buzz on: a charming, trance-like fantasy soggily alive to strange spasms and tics of character.

First-time director Almereyda based this movie on Mary Robison's 1980 novel "Oh"--which the writer says is about "the frailty of adulthood, the frailty of love. " That describes the plight of most of the central characters seem arrested in adolescence, especially siblings Maureen and Howdy Cleveland (Suzy Amis and Crispin Glover). Unwed mother Maureen, or "Mo," has the face of a corn-silk Botticelli with a spray of Sissy Spacek freckles. She's given to slouching, tantrums, petulant pouts.

Brother Howdy is the real oddball: dressed in black with fluttery eyes and Renaissance bangs, he's given to cracking whips, striking Byronic poses and droning awful self-composed dirges that try to fuse new-wave rock with Gaelic poetry ("Daddy was mean" is his main theme). Howdy is an "artist" the way many bored, bright, lazy, self-indulgent rich kids are artists: their writing, painting or movies are just like his "songs." And Glover makes him a classic poseur-hysteric: fracturing his delivery so hilariously that every word is filigreed to death and every gesture is a goony ballet. In "River's Edge," those flailing, eccentric emphasises sometimes seemed a little forced. Here, they fit perfectly; it's his best performance.

The Cleveland kids' dad, Eugene the soda pop king is played by Harry Dean Stanton with almost hair-raising delicacy and control: as someone so inured to his family--or so soused himself--that he's beyond amazement. He reacts to everything with the same crocked twinkle and amiable mellow-tone. When he finally throws a tantrum, it has a horrific daintiness: With quiet ferocity, he overturns three soup bowls and sternly tells everyone to continue eating.

Like Dorothy, the characters including Mo's ex-lover (Dylan McDermott) and a bemused black maid (Charlaine Woodard) suffer through a tornado. But it doesn't spin them into any magic kingdom. They simply wake up dazed again, in another unbearably unstructured day. What Almereyda has drawn here--with a mood that, except for its absence of zoom shots, irresistibly recalls the vaguely narcotized, real-surreal atmosphere of Robert Altman's '70s films--is the dilemma of a family sunk in riches and without a clue what to do with them.

Setting the movie in Kansas--that flat land of pale skies, with its echoes of both Oz and "In Cold Blood"--heightens the surreality. It suggests the magic that won't come, the terror that might. When William Burroughs shows up, taking target practice and then ruminating on an acquaintance who shot horses and died after trying to eat a clock, it's a good sample of "Twister's" humor: ultra-deadpan, a little mean: American Gothic with glazed eyes.

Almereyda fills every scene with verbal jolts and spins, but he doesn't have much visual style. The film suffers from a lack of modulation, and also from the low budget that keeps Almereyda from even trying for a simulated hurricane.

But "Twister's" shortcomings can be excused, because it has something new to offer: a goofball penetration into the lives of the rich and tipsy, half-crocked under the rainbow. Seldom does a movie seem so tied to the moods and fluctuations of alcohol. Watching these people, you can almost imagine what they're drinking: from Chris' six-packs to Mo's whiskey and pills to Dad's bourbon to whatever Howdy is doodling himself up with: perhaps creme de menthe laced with Methedrine.

"Twister" (rated PG-13) may not have special effects or taut structure, but it has something movies with real-looking tornadoes usually miss: intelligence, surprise, a flair for the craziness of the everyday.

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