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ROBIN ABCARIAN

If They Don't Live Happily Ever After, Blame Her

October 26, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Once a week, we foist the bambina off on a baby-sitter and sneak off to the movies.

We go for the same reason all working slobs do--to transcend the banality of the human condition, as a movie critic might put it. In lay terms, we go to avoid the dishes.

Because what I do for a living often involves exploring the various ways in which life can really suck, I try hard to leave my feminist psychic baggage at the theater door.

For instance, I didn't agree that "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" was a slap at working mothers. If you recall, the insane nanny tried to off the mommy who was busy building a greenhouse instead of nurturing her kids. The message I got from the film was not that bad things befall moms who hire baby-sitters, but that if your nursing child suddenly refuses your breast, make sure the baby-sitter is not lactating.

Nor was I offended by Glenn Close's bunny boiler in "Fatal Attraction." Never mind that violence is visited far more often upon women by their male lovers than the other way around, her character became a kind of shorthand for a particularly distasteful type of female pathology. Still, I chose to interpret the movie as an Old Testament-ish reminder of what happens to deceitful daddies.

Thelma and Louise, of course, were good strong symbols of female independence, but jeez, aren't there better ways of proving it than driving off a cliff? Ever hear of divorce, ladies? Or Prozac?

And even though Jamie Lee Curtis' wimpy, thickheaded wife in "True Lies" was ripped by some critics as a stinging, mean-spirited sexist stereotype, I thought she was funny, and I am one of the few people I know who loved the movie. (I have a weakness for Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Sue me.)

So why did "The River Wild" completely tick me off?

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I promise not to give anything away, but if you don't want to know the broad outlines of the movie's plot, you should probably skip to the comics.

Meryl Streep stars with David Strathairn. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll call them Meryl and David.

Anyhow, Meryl and David are married and live in Boston with their two kids. Meryl is an angry teacher and David is a humorless, workaholic architect. Meryl grew up somewhere with mountains and rivers with white water rapids. And when she was a teen-ager, she was a really talented river guide. For her son's birthday Meryl plans a rafting trip. She will leave her young daughter with her parents, and take her son and husband along in hopes of recapturing the freedom and confidence of her youth--and maybe, if she is lucky--her sense of life's possibilities.

But her husband is too busy to join them. He's always too busy to join them. He hasn't joined them for years, for decades, maybe even for centuries, because he is such a relentless, joyless drone. And for Meryl, who feels her marriage is crashing into the rocks already, his absence is the last straw.

But Daddy unexpectedly shows up.

I won't delve into their adventures on the river, which turn on a couple of bad-guy bandits attempting an unconventional escape. Suffice to say Meryl is not having a good year--either at home or on vacation.

It's a happy ending in the Hollywood sense: A little blood is shed, a couple of people we don't especially care about get killed, and Meryl and David rediscover their passion.

Normally, I'd think Meryl was a pretty good ol' role model here. She is strong and competent, nobody's fool. But the filmmakers couldn't leave it at that.

No, in a perfectly obnoxious revelation about David's abandonment of the family, we learn that Meryl's perfectionism has driven him away. Her high standards have kept him at the office night after night. He doesn't want to disappoint her , see, so he spends all his time working.

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Hey, I can buy Meryl as a worn-down, lonely wife. I can buy her as a flawless river guide. I can even--although this is stretching it--buy that bad guys still only come in two sizes: lean (psychopathic charmer) and pudgy (doofus-with-a-conscience).

But I can only suspend disbelief for so long.

David's shortcomings as a father and husband are all Meryl's fault? And now that she sees the error of her ways, they'll live happily ever after? Like, she won't care if he loses the next 10 accounts, as long as he comes home for dinner?

Yeah, right.

If this guy represents life's possibilities, I'd be tempted to join Thelma and Louise.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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