The City of Absurdity The Straight Story


By LOU LUMENICK, New York Post(***1/2 (of 4)), November 1999

YUP, the credits confirm that "Walt Disney Pictures Presents a Film by David Lynch" - and "The Straight Story," Lynch's first G-rated feature, turns out to be one of the year's best films.

Veteran character actor Richard Farnsworth gives a hugely touching, Oscar-worthy performance as Alvin Straight, a real-life Iowa man who rode 350 miles to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother, who had suffered a stroke - and Straight did it on a 1966 John Deere riding mower.

Alvin, who's 74 but looks a decade older, doesn't have eyesight good enough to drive a car. Though he suffers from diabetes and emphysema and needs two canes to walk, he stubbornly refuses glasses, drugs or operations. And he certainly doesn't feel like riding on a bus.

So, much to the alarm of his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) and the amazement of his neighbors, the frail old man builds a crude wooden trailer to sleep in, hitches it to the mower and sets off with an ample supply of wieners and smokes.

The heart of "The Straight Story" is the Midwest countryside - cornfields and sunsets lyrically photographed by legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis, who filmed "Dr. Zhivago" - and the people Alvin meets during the six weeks he dodges tractor-trailer trucks while crawling along at 5 mph.

Among the people he encounters are a pregnant teen runaway (Anastasia Webb), whom he convinces to return to her family; a hysterical motorist (Barbara Johnson) who keeps driving her car into deer; and a pack of bicyclists whom Alvin tells, "The worst part about being old is remembering when you were young."

When the mower is damaged in a near-fatal plunge down a hill near the Mississippi River, a compassionate farmer (James Cada) offers to drive Straight to his destination.

But Alvin is determined to do things his own way, even if it means risking what little is left of his life - and fighting with twin mechanics (John and Kevin Farley) who try to gouge him for the repairs in the movie's funniest sequence.

Setting aside the twisted noir sensibility, violence and inscrutability of recent films such as "Lost Highway" for this deliberately paced road movie, Lynch treats the material (written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, the film's editor and Lynch's girlfriend) in a very straightforward manner.

He focuses on the magnificently wrecked Farns-worth, who delivers two long, touching monologues - one about how his speech-impaired daughter had her children taken away following a fire, and a second in which he recalls accidentally killing another GI in World War II.

In his first starring role since "The Grey Fox" 15 years ago, the 79-year-old Farnsworth (an Oscar nominee for "Comes a Horseman") vividly sketches an old man nearing death - the real Alvin died in 1996, two years after his journey - with many regrets from decades of hard drinking, including a fight with his brother Lyle (a nice cameo by Harry Dean Stanton) that's kept them from speaking for 10 years.

Spacek is excellent in her small but key role as Alvin's daughter, who worries about her dad's frailty but knows better than to resist his determination.

Lyrical, sweet and brimming with optimism about the human condition, "The Straight Story" is a wonderful surprise from the director of "Blue Velvet" and "Dune."


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© Mike Hartmann