Girl Meets Horse, Mom Meets Cowboy … Mr. Beatty Goes to South Central

Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer , based on the popular novel by Nicholas Evans, is the best girl-meets-horse movie since National Velvet . Kristin Scott Thomas plays Annie MacLean, a chic, affluent, London-born New York magazine editor tailored a bit obviously after both Anna Wintour and Liz Tilberis (with a nod to Tina Brown) whose 14-year-old daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson) loses her leg in a riding accident that also kills her best friend and traumatizes her beloved horse, Pilgrim. The humane thing to do, of course, is put the horse down, but this tough, two-fisted career woman ignores the advice of her veterinarian (played with brief but resonant wisdom and heart by Cherry Jones), convinced that the child and the horse must heal their scars together, physically and emotionally. Something stubborn, willful and unyielding about this woman makes her determined to save them both.

Using her magazine’s research department, she is led to a “horse whisperer”–a cowboy named Tom Booker (played with rusty Gary Cooper appeal by Mr. Redford), who has a magical way of curing psychologically disturbed horses. Booker is a loner, an old-fashioned roughneck and an isolationist who lives by the rugged values of the Old West in a time-warped abyss of his own choosing. Annie, the hard New Yorker, drives Grace and the horse all the way to Booker’s ranch in Montana, and when the long, arduous task of healing begins, they are forced to adjust to a different way of life. In the process, every life is changed, love grows between the gentle, spiritual cowboy and the displaced sophisticate, and the wrenching choices they must make have consequences that are both enlightening and tragic.

Mr. Redford is such a meticulous actor, he makes every aspect of a Marlboro Man’s life resoundingly real, and he’s such a skilled director that he draws the audience into his world effortlessly. There are aerial views of the American West that take your breath away, accompanied by the awfulness of American radio–sermons, weather reports and rock music to drive you even crazier behind the steering wheel–as Annie and Grace journey toward new horizons. The daily rituals of ranch life are catalogued splendidly, from the cattle drives to the branding of steers, through the chores, the barbecues and the barn dances. It’s nice to share the simple joys and struggles of people who have never heard the word ” Zeitgeist ,” hailed a taxi, or read a copy of Vanity Fair . After donning gingham shirts and worn blue jeans, joining in songs around the campfire and dinner out of a skillet, the jaded New Yorkers learn there’s more to life than money and stress, and the movie does take you to a different place, mentally as well as geographically. Of course, the leisurely, laconic pace may lead a few cynics to wonder how Annie is editing that magazine all the way from Montana by fax. (I don’t have a big picture of Tina Brown slopping hogs just to save a neurotic horse while The New Yorker publishes itself for the next six months.)

Also, at the risk of sounding churlish (a boy like moi ?), I must point out that for a movie in which very little happens and dialogue is sparse, The Horse Whisperer is incredibly long (two hours, 44 minutes). It takes two hours and 15 minutes before that aw-shucks cowpoke gets around to kissin’ that uptight city gal, although there’s a lotta hankerin’ going on in the corral. And that ending is a real pain to the saddle sores, right out of The Bridges of Madison County , which, for double irony, was penned by the same scriptwriter, Richard LaGravenese, who shares credit with Eric ( Forrest Gump ) Roth. These guys know how to make the tear ducts flow. For anyone other than the critics, protection is advised. A nickel pack of Kleenex won’t do.

Nit-picking aside, this is a warm, gauzy, feel-good flick that should delight anyone crazy about horses. The scenery is gorgeous, the stars are gorgeous, the uplifting spirituality it shares is gorgeous. Mr. Redford’s appeal and dedication shine through every scene. In addition to the actors already mentioned, there are solid contributions by Chris Cooper, Sam Neill, Dianne Wiest and a little boy named Ty Hillman who will melt your heart. From the flapjacks to the narrative Celtic folk ballads sung by the cowboys around the chuck wagon, The Horse Whisperer draws you into an ambience of peace and rapture that is sadly missing in the dumbfounding dementia of today’s films. The tenderness and the intelligence are contagious.

Mr. Beatty Goes to South Central

Warren Beatty’s Bulworth , a satirical spin on the hypocrisy of American politics, can accurately be described as audacious. It is also a courageous, risky, annoying, brilliant, exasperating, hilarious, repellent, provocative, sophomoric mess. Fueled by years of vigorous, self-involved political disenchantment, the star, producer, writer and director unloads a broadside on American society like a shotgun blast and probably hopes American society will love him for it. Did I neglect to say that I found the result somewhat naïve?

Mr. Beatty plays J. Billington Bulworth, an incumbent Democratic senator in the 1996 California primary who, on the threshold of a new millennium, is looking for the exit door. Sick of pork bellies, insurance bills, tobacco lobbies and endless rounds of fund-raisers, Bulworth is stressed to the max. So he strikes a deal to have himself bumped off and then, with nothing to lose, goes loopily, uncontrollably berserk. In a movie that really should be called Warren Loosens Up , Bulworth spends the first half bouncing from a gospel meeting in South Central Los Angeles to a black after-hours joint to smoke reefers, then into Beverly Hills to insult the Jews, to drag three young black women into a breakfast fund-raiser at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and to rap his way to stardom while the world goes into shock. As soon as he starts having fun, he wants to cancel the hit, but it’s too late. The “fixer” has a heart attack, lands in intensive care, and time is running out. The rest of the movie shows Bulworth still berserk but on the run, trying to outwit the killer with only a foxy black chick (Halle Berry) to help him hide.

In the process, he gets his conscience back and goes on a truth-telling binge, insulting everybody in America along the way. This gives Mr. Beatty the chance of his life to get everything wrong with America off his chest. Nobody is left unscathed, from limousine liberals to the lying politicians and the rich powerbrokers who finance their campaigns. Ghetto blacks get the worst of it, as they sit around eating fried chicken and watermelon while their kids are robbing convenience stores and dealing coke, but the movie is so steeped in leftist propaganda, they probably don’t even know it. Meanwhile, Mr. Beatty takes to the ‘hood, rapping in rhyme, dressed in a heliotrope ski cap and knee-length shorts, looking like a cross between the Pied Piper, a character from South Park and Ice Cube. I guess it’s for laughs, but in a movie of so much concept and so little coherence, it’s hard to tell. When he buys his way out of the most dangerous block in L.A. by treating a gang of drug-dealing, gun-toting mini-muggers to free ice cream cones, you’re too goggle-eyed from the pure preposterousness of it all to laugh. The real laugh comes on cue when, after treating every couch potato to his antics on C-SPAN, Bulworth makes the media bigs drool with visions of ratings dancing in their brains. “People are tired of baloney,” pants Larry King. “I want him on my show!” Mr. Beatty takes on media whores, too.

It’s a Frank Capra idea, set to hip-hop, and the notion that a complacent fat-cat goes down the rabbit hole, inadvertently becoming a hero while introducing a few revolutionary ideas every liberal thinks about but rarely talks about, is not to be dismissed lightly. There’s material here for a dozen films, but Mr. Beatty has crammed them all into one. In the 10 years it took him to give it life, Bulworth has taken on so much helium, you’d be afraid to light a match in its presence. Good actors populate the scene (Christine Baranski, Paul Sorvino, Jack Warden, Don Cheadle) and the crisp cinematography by the great Vittorio Storaro is a marvel. But the script has holes the size of canyons and the cynical finale, replete with a toothless black panhandler as a one-man Greek chorus, is a real downer.

There’s an excess of talent and energy here, and Mr. Beatty is far from the jerk he appears to be in interviews. But Bulworth is still an ego trip with a commercial box-office potential of zero. It isn’t remotely believable, but it is, for perverse intellectuals, hugely enjoyable.

Robert Redford and Warren Beatty are two of the last dinosaurs surviving the crunch–middle-aged survivors from Hollywood’s glamour years still ambulatory enough to star in, produce and direct their own movies, whether anyone wants to see them or not. It’s ironic that their new ones are opening competitively on the same day. Sort of reminds me of the porn actress in the three-way who beckons lasciviously to her attendant toy boys: “There’s room enough for both of you.” It might be interesting to see which one stays in the saddle longer.