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Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Branding a book "unfilmable" only ensures that some ambitious lunatic will at some point stake their career on bringing the daunting tome to the screen. It almost always ends badly. For every Naked Lunch there are countless mishaps like Bonfire of the Vanities, Catch-22, Breakfast of Champions, and At Play in the Fields of the Lord — novels that are as much about the experience of reading them as about telling a compelling story. That's certainly the case with Tom Robbins'counterculture yarn Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which caught the fancy of indie darling Gus Van Sant, who leveraged the clout built up over his previous successes to bring the story of big-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw to the big screen in 1993. Though My Own Private Idaho thrived on the same kind of wild digressiveness that makes Robbins'work so prohibitive, there was every expectation that Van Sant would likely fall short in taming this crazy, stream-of-consciousness tale. What was perhaps unexpected was that he'd wind up with something so completely unwatchable. About the only thing Van Sant gets right is the casting of Uma Thurman as Sissy, a former model turned hitchhiking nomad who finds herself lured back into the modeling business by her effete agent, The Countess (John Hurt). After an awkward, drugged-out threesome with some extravagant New Yorkers, Sissy gets sent out west to shoot a commercial at The Countess's ranch, where the lovely and refined Miss Adrian (Angie Dickenson) wars with the lesbian cowgirls charged with the upkeep of the establishment. Sissy quickly falls in love with the boldest of all cowgirls, Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix), and also spends time with the wise, if lecherous, "Chink" (Pat Morita), while the central conflict between the cowgirls and The F.B.I. over the harboring of endangered cranes, jarred from their migration pattern by being fed peyote, half-heartedly develops in the background. It's surprising that a filmmaker who could so effortlessly insert Shakespeare's Henry IV into an ambling tale of male hustlers would struggle so ineptly with Robbins'episodic novel, failing to nail even a single scene, but Van Sant seems too intimidated by the work, which results in a strange timidity that robs it of its essential carnality. He's certainly not helped by his decision to cast name actors in periphery roles, all of whom seem determined to keep their clothes on, which is in stark opposition to the sexual frankness of Robbins'writing. While on the subject of casting, the decision to place Rain Phoenix in the pivotal role of Bonanza Jellybean is utter folly; she's tentative and devoid of charisma when she needs to be feral and seductive. Van Sant's stylistic choices are equally off — naturalism and surrealism continually and confusedly collide as if the director, unsure of what tone to set, hoped that mashing the two disparate aesthetics together might yield something wholly unique. One wonders if this hesitancy is a product of paralyzing reverence, since Robbins not only approved of Van Sant, but lent his voice to the film's narration. After a catastrophic debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 1993, Van Sant would retreat to the more structured, satirical confines of To Die For (1995). But that was a triumph of material; it would take the better part of a decade spent hacking it out on for-hire Hollywood entertainments before Van Sant rediscovered his daring with the excellent Gerry (2002). New Line presents Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with good Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras are limited to theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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