Along with the gangster film, the road movie may be one of the most quintessentially American film genres. The road in films from Easy Rider to Thelma & Louise is an exploratory space where characters take an emotional journey in addition to the literal one. Americans are in love not only with their cars, but what they symbolize: freedom, transformation, escape.
The latest celluloid road trip, Bonneville, takes its name from the 1966 convertible coupe that the film's heroine, Arvilla (Jessica Lange), commandeers and steers toward her own form of transformation. Arvilla is recently widowed by her adventurous, travel-mad husband, and finds herself locked in an ugly battle for her husband's ashes with his adult daughter, Francine (Christine Baranski), from a previous marriage.
Arvilla wants to pay homage to her husband's love of travel by scattering the ashes in the open wind. Francine, as wealthy as she is tightly wound, wants a proper burial. If Francine can't get the ashes, she threatens to evict Arvilla from her daddy's house.
Drawing her two best girlfriends close, Arvilla decides to drive the ashes from Utah out to Francine's Santa Barbara memorial service. Her prissy Mormon pal Carol (Joan Allen) and jolly, irreverent chum Margene (Kathy Bates) come along for the ride.
As they head off on their adventure, someone worries, "This thing doesn't even have air bags!"
"Sure, it does," Arvilla quips. "Three of them."
Thus begins the saga of these Chico's women of a certain age on their journey somewhere between Thelma & Louise and the canned "moments" of femme treacle like Beaches as Arvilla symbolically "lets go" of her husband by scattering his ashes along the way.
But Bonneville is almost over before it begins. Director Christopher Rowley and screenwriter Daniel Davis (both making their feature-film debuts) rely too heavily on Arvilla's interior thoughts. Clearly aiming to strike a soulful note, their words come off as flowery and leaden, threatening to sink the film in a honeyed Hallmark goo. This slavish capitulation to formulas and heavyweight actresses doing their thing comes at the expense of laying new pipeline in either the road-movie or chick-flick genres.
In an unsurprising development, an episodic plot unspools. There are adventures involving a handsome trucker (a lovely turn by Tom Skerritt) who, unlike the misogynist goon in Thelma & Louise, strikes up a friendship with the women. Spats break out. Vegas jackpots are won. Handsome, motherless hitchhikers are alternately leered at like a sizzling T-bone and protectively fussed over like a stray puppy. There are flat tires and cell phones tossed from cars in the reckless manner of a wine commercial.
Davis' view of women is both affectionate and condescending, and might have benefited from some time logged with real older women rather than episodes of "The Golden Girls." It's hard to imagine a more humiliating request made of an older actress as a scene of Kathy Bates pumping quarters into a vibrating motel bed, her flesh jiggling like a gooey flan.
Despite a generally easygoing, sisterly vibe, perhaps the greatest impediment to the film's success is Jessica Lange. It feels impolite, even cruel to say, but Lange's beauty has become transformed not by time, but by obvious age-defying surgery. The effect is heartbreaking – and distracting. It's as if a uniform expression has been implanted onto her face, or as if she is acting from beneath a mask.
Lange's decision to alter her face so dramatically seems to work against the film's address to older women surely anxious to see their kind reflected on screen.
If Jessica Lange is a tragic, real-world example of our beauty-obsessed culture, then Penelope takes a more fanciful look at the necessity of looks in a woman's worth. Penelope, told as a contemporary fairy tale, concerns a family curse and a girl baby, Penelope (Christina Ricci), born with the snout and ears of a pig. As an adult, Penelope's pushy mother (a sadly wasted Catherine O'Hara) wants nothing more than to marry off her daughter, but every man who gets a gander at the pig-girl runs screaming from the family mansion.
Audiences will hardly be surprised when the "right" man (ubiquitous sensitive hunk James McAvoy) comes along to accept Penelope as she is. Whimsical by half, director Mark Palansky's dreary lark strives for a charming message about self-acceptance and happy endings, but the story is trite and the fairy tale elements contrived.
Beauty is a worthy theme to explore in this kind of tweeny fare, but Penelope just plays into the notion that the happiest endings involve a butterfly emerging from the hag chrysalis to capture the prince.
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