The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

Lynch throws curve 'Straight' to the heart

By Mike Clark, USA TODAY (**** of 4 stars), October 15, 1999

David Lynch directing a G-rated movie for Disney sounds as outrageous as, say, Oliver Stone directing a vintage MGM musical - the difference being that we now know Lynch can pull off the challenge.

The Straight Story is going to be revered for giving 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth the role of his career. But the most amazing thing about this fact-based yarn is that it actually plays like movies we're accustomed to seeing from the filmmaker behind Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.

Lynch has a way of finding drama in the most mundane small-town events, and here he recounts a six-week saga that, though hardly mundane, might have been treated with satire or condescension by someone else. The title is a play on words because it concerns the late Alvin Straight (Farnsworth) - a widowed veteran and father of 14 who in 1994 drove a 28-year-old John Deere riding mower from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wis.

The movie gradually massages viewers out of any initial antagonism ("Get off the road, you addled idiot") into a rooting concern for Alvin's goal.

It isn't just that, with poor eyesight and no driver's license, he's trying to visit a stroke-afflicted brother he hasn't spoken to in 10 years by the only means at his disposal. It's also that his past boozing and vanity contributed to the sibling fissure - one of many things we learn about Alvin as he chums up to strangers on the road in a series of warm and perfectly weighted vignettes.

The movie gets its emotional force from Lynch's directorial passion, wise script (John Roach, Mary Sweeney) and Farnsworth - the one-time stunt man who came out of acting nowhere to get a supporting Oscar nomination for 1978's Comes a Horseman, a feat likely to be repeated with Straight.

Sissy Spacek plays Alvin's semibefuddled daughter, and she, too, has her story - one that, like so many of the plot revelations, resonates long after the movie has ended.

Lynch finds a way to get visual mileage out of virtually every scene, as when a brake mishap on a hill ends with a miraculously unharmed Alvin making a chance screech-halt in front of an eyesore structure that the local fire department is torching as an exercise.

The filmmaker's instincts have never been sharper, but it's also welcome to see Lynch indulging a humanistic streak not really displayed since 1980's The Elephant Man.

The result may be the best news the G rating has had since the ratings system was instituted in 1968.


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