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The most frustrating film in the world is one that has a great cast, great story, and great production values -- but never quite clicks. That's this film.
Angus MacFadyen plays Houston, a Coloradan who owns and edits a "Maxim"-like men's magazine that focuses on beer, cigars, breasts and fart-jokes. He's got women coming out his ears -- a hot blonde who is a model, a hot blonde with a son who sees him as husband-material, etc. When Houston's mother -- a woman he hasn't seen in seven years and hasn't even talked to in five -- dies, Houston heads to the funeral. He meets up with Zane (Penelope Ann Miller), his ex-girlfriend from ten years ago. But soon Houston finds out that Zane has been named executor of his mother's estate. Worse, Zane has been his mother's secret lesbian lover for the last three years.
The film follows Houston's emotional evolution as he comes to term with his mother, his dead father, his family history, and Zane.
In some ways, however, the film cheats just a little too much. Houston is supposedly a ladies' man (although MacFadyen is a little too chubby and too average-looking to be believable in this), an outright misogynist who thinks women should be barefoot and pregnant. Houston is set up almost as a caricature: He blames his mother for his parents' divorce, he idolizes his father, he believes his father's tall tale about shooting a grizzly bear six times on the family ranch-land, he is a homophobe, he holds his family's land in the sort of awe only in the way that people who've never cared about land can do.
All of Houston's come-uppances are similarly a little too pat. Houston is traumatized by Zane's admission of lesbianism, and yet later Houston sleeps with twins who engage in lesbian sex in front of him -- to his utter horror. Houston hauls the stuffed grizzly bear around -- only to find out that it was fake and made in Mexico. Houston believes his father was a god-fearing, honest, decent man -- only to find out he was a wife-beating adulterer who cheated and lied his way through life.
MacFadyen tries valiantly to rescue the character of Houston by humanizing him, making him less of a monster than the script calls for. But he's not a strong enough actor to quite pull it off, and the script fails him time and time again. There is a scene where Houston triumphantly holds a wet t-shirt contest on his family's land, offending Zane and her liberal sensibilities. Houston kisses the winner, a buxom brunette. But of course, "she" is a transsexual, and Houston can't believe he just "kissed a guy." Although somewhat funny, the scene destroys the credibility of the storyline. And MacFadyen simply can't make the character seem believable or honest with such material. The film tries to make Houston more honest by giving him a love of "the land," a love for historic places (he's anti-development), and a powerful feeling for his family history and roots. But against the background of the rest of the character, these feelings come off as specious.
Penelope Ann Miller, however, is just outstanding as Zane, the rejected lover who becomes a lesbian. She has just the right amount of gravitas for the character without turning preachy or heavy. In the key scene, where Zane explains why she became the mother's lover, Miller plays the role with such sensitivity and sincerely that you, too, feel the surprise and innocence of Zane's decision -- just as Zane did. Zane is no closeted lesbian or confused college student who sleeps with the mother out of spite or jealousy. This is someone who found a real friend in the mother during the relationship with Houston, continued that after the break-up, and then unwittingly fell in love (to her own surprise).
Ann-Margret is largely wasted as Houston's step-mother, Claire, a greedy New Age bitch who can only see land development deals and money as she manipulates Houston into seizing control of the land from Zane. You also get the feeling that a lot of her scenes are missing from the final cut. There are odd references in the dialogue that seem to refer to scenes that aren't in the movie. Much of the legal battle in the final 45 minutes of the film revolves around conversations we've never seen. Indeed, this hurts the development of both the Houston and Claire characters. The exposition and plot development that should have been there is missing, making the characters leap from action to action and emotion to emotion seemingly at random or without much reason.
Indeed, this is a problem with the entire film. The little inconsistencies turn what could have been a truly outstanding film into one that has all jets burning -- but never leaves the ground. It has wings, but never flies. An improved soundtrack (it's so nondescript, you would swear there isn't one), better editing, a better writing would have greatly helped.
It is pleasant enough. But go to a matinee, not the full-price evening show.
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