No amount of Saint Johnswort will get you through U-Turn. You need stronger stuff, since it’s a movie so stupefyingly bad it seems to have been made by people stoned on Prozac and helium. Not so much directed as hallucinated by madman Oliver Stone, this lurid, violent and pretentious cross between Blue Velvet and Duel in the Sun is not as much fun as it sounds. Vultures circle overhead in every scene while it just lays there, stinking.
Based on a book by John Ridley I never intend to read, U-Turn opens with Peggy Lee jauntily singing “It’s a Good Day” as a brainless mook named Bobby (Sean Penn) heads across the desert in a red Mustang convertible with $50,000 in his backpack and his hand in a bloody bandage after three of his fingers have been chopped off with a pair of wire cutters by a mob of Russian gangsters. (Huh?) Bobby’s on the way to Vegas to pay off an unexplained debt before they cut off the rest of his hand, but his car cracks up with a busted radiator hose. He pulls into a hick town in Arizona called Superior, at the end of nowhere, populated by trashy lowlifes who all get their kicks from robbing, beating and killing off strangers.
While his car is being demolished by a filthy, rotten-toothed, milky-eyed moron in fishnet stockings (Billy Bob Thornton), Bobby encounters an all-star cast eager to make public fools of themselves in roles no sane director would ever ask them to play. Bobby loses his money in a convenience store holdup, where a toothless, shotgun-toting Mexican crone blows everyone away while the soundtrack plays Gloria Lynne singing “I Wish You Love.” After a bimbo (Claire Danes) asks for a quarter for the jukebox, her retarded boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix) stalks Bobby through the town, lusting for a fight. Desperate to get out of hell, Bobby agrees to murder the Indian wife (Jennifer Lopez) of a psycho (Nick Nolte) with a talent for sodomy, then gets a better offer from the wife herself, who may be doing some extra duty in the sack with the sadistic sheriff (Powers Boothe). Meanwhile, we get some zonked-out philosophy by a wacko, blind Apache war veteran (Jon Voight, looking like Cochise in drag) who has a dead seeing-eye dog and spouts dumb dialogue like “It’s a love-hate relationship-you love her but you hate her-no, I hate loving her” and “We’re all eyes in the same head-everything is everything!” Even when you’re hearing it, you don’t believe what you’re hearing.
You don’t believe what you’re seeing, either. Everything is shot in weird, dizzying angles with close-ups of eyeballs and fingernails. Jinxed at every turn, Bobby has a nervous breakdown at the bus station because he’s five bucks short of the price of a ticket to anywhere, and when the agent finally gives him a ticket to freedom, another psycho eats it. Every time he buys a cold drink, somebody smashes the bottle. You get close-ups of rattlesnakes striking the camera lens, scorpions crawling out of the water faucets and buzzards feasting on the entrails of dead animals, so you know the end is not going to be pretty. As Bobby and Ms. Lopez crawl toward each other in a desert canyon littered with bloody corpses for their slice-and-dice Duel in the Sun finale (where are those rattlesnakes when we need them most?), you keep thinking the only thing that can save this movie is a hydrogen bomb.
Oliver Stone has made some serious, worthwhile films. This is not one of them. The cinematography is ugly, the actors look embalmed (especially Nick Nolte, who resembles the head of a centipede), the writing is uniformly lousy. It seems to have been made by an idiot savant. And what is it, anyway? U-Turn is not a film noir, although it does steal shamelessly from Quentin Tarantino, and even worse, the two death’s-head moths of modern cinema, David Lynch and David Cronenberg. It’s not a comedy, although God knows it’s unintentionally hilarious in all the wrong places. And it’s not a thriller when the audience sits stunned, in a state of narcolepsy. The actors are given no space to develop any sense of character beyond improvisation; the frantic collage of slow motion and fast-frame camera tricks develops no theme or thesis; and the story is nothing more than a tarted-up variation of a dozen discarded film-school storyboards. What U-Turn is, really, is an unmitigated pile of crap-and one of the worst nonmovies ever made.
For a nail-biting suspense thriller that is refreshingly different from the usual hackneyed Hollywood cliffhangers, try The Edge. There isn’t one guided missile, toxic virus, double agent or monster from Mars in it, yet it kept me frozen in more ways than one. Two fine actors-Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin-and a tense, terse script by David Mamet keep this macho grenade in the air in a harrowing tale of two very different men forced to depend on each other after a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness leaves them lost and defenseless, with nature as their enemy. Mr. Baldwin is a reckless, arrogant fashion photographer on an exotic photo shoot in the wilds of uncharted territory, where fashion can be accessorized by bones, feathers and Eskimo spears you don’t find at Saks. Mr. Hopkins is a brilliant, jealous millionaire, married to supermodel Elle Macpherson, who goes along for the fun, secretly suspecting the photographer may be having an affair with his girl-toy trophy behind his back. The plot indicates treachery, competitive male egos clashing against the rugged backdrop of snow-capped peaks and maybe even murder. Then the plane crashes, and the two adversaries end up needing and hating each other at the same time, matching wits to survive.
Mr. Baldwin’s character is a jaded New Yorker weaned on life in the fast lane. Looking out at the snowy mountain wilderness, he says, “It’s a little different from snorting coke off a girl’s hipbones.” But Mr. Hopkins’ character spends more time at Barnes & Noble than at Au Bar. He knows how to make a compass out of a paper clip and forage for food with fishing tackle constructed out of a gold watch and threads from a cashmere sweater. A battle of brains versus brawn ensues, while both men are stalked by a bloodthirsty, man-eating kodiak bear that is raging, rampant and unstoppable. Will they ever find their way back to civilization? If only one can make it, then which one will it be? More important, what does a bear want for a blue-plate special? I’ll tell you only one thing: It ain’t honey.
What seems like a deceptively simple plot turns into a blistering, two-fisted battle of intellect that will make you scream out loud. The Edge has more thrills and inventive ideas in any single frame than you’ll find in all of the scenes in U-Turn, put together. It’s extremely well shot, intensely directed by Lee Tamahori, and acted with lean, mean fury by two charismatic actors who play off each other brilliantly. And that bear is scarier than any rubber dinosaur that ever lived in Jurassic Park. It should serve as a lesson to future garmentos trying to weird up the fashion pages of Vogue -stick to photo ops at the Plaza hotel fountain.
Come to Dinner,
Soul Food ‘s Tasty
Sadly, white mainstream audiences do not go in droves to movies by black filmmakers, but Soul Food might change all that. Here is a warm, feel-good movie about family values with appeal for all, and certainly New York audiences of every color are yelling and applauding like they’re at the World Series. Why not? It’s about a big Chicago family where, every Sunday night for 40 years, the wise and wonderful matriarch, Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall), serves up potato salad, fried chicken, cornbread, black-eyed peas with ham and sweet potato pie. Then Mama Joe has a stroke, her three daughters (gorgeous Vanessa Williams, Vivica Fox and Nia Long) stop speaking, an uncle goes to jail, a sexy cousin threatens to break up a marriage and the oven goes cold. It’s up to Mama Joe’s favorite grandson, played by an appealing kid named Brandon Hammond, to get everyone back together.
The happy ending is part TV sitcom, part fairy tale, and all contrivance, but no matter. Soul Food has universal themes about family ties. It’s just coincidental that the family in focus happens to be African-American. The food looks so delicious, you’ll want to be a dinner guest. The message is “Count your blessings, not your calories” and by closing the gap between stereotypes, it’s a positive step in the right direction.