*** Stars
(US 1999)


Starring:
Diane Lane, Viggo Mortensen, Liev Schreiber, Anna Paquin

Directed by Tony Goldwyn

Writing Credits: Pamela Gray

Miramax *105 minutes

Viewed on: VHS


Even for those of us who do NOT blame the sixties for the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, the summer of 1969 looks pretty darn silly when viewed in retrospective on a screen. Even the excellent PBS documentary from a few years back failed to put the sixties in context, and as for the recent NBC fictional treatment, well, the less said the better. At best, attempts to re-create that long strange trip consist of pastiche of young people in looking ridiculous as they spout what three decades later sounds like pretentious claptrap, but then sounded like profound insights. At worst, you get AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME.

But there was more than just kids experimenting with sex and drugs and freedom and music that summer in upstate New York, there was the first moon landing. And there were parents, many of them only a few years out of their twenties themselves; who had come of age in the aftermath of World War II, who may even have listened to the early strains of rock 'n' roll, or read Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD and wondered "what if" -- if they could have been beatniks; if they'd only had a massive social movement to grease their path so as not to rebel alone. And now their kids are going to HAVE those opportunities -- to "smoke marijuana and screw everything in sight" -- en masse -- that they themselves missed.

If you're looking for a way to celebrate the off-year 31st anniversary of the original Woodstock music festival, you could do worse than renting A WALK ON THE MOON, the deft and sensitive directorial debut by Tony Goldwyn. This gem of a film deals with the parallel journeys of Pearl Kantrowitz (Diane Lane), a Jewish working-class housewife and her daughter Allison, during that strange summer, at one of those Borscht Belt bungalow colonies at which urban Jews who couldn't afford the Concord or the Nevele spent their summers. Think DIRTY DANCING without money. However, in this particular summer, a concert is about to take place in the neighboring town of Bethel, one which will become symbolic of a generation.

At 31, Pearl is the mother of a teenager who is the product of a night of passion in these very same Catskills. Lovingly married fourteen years to Marty, a pleasant but plodding TV repairman, she often wonders what her life might have been had had she not been tied down with a family at seventeen, spending the summers playing mah-jongg and listening to her mother-in-law's (Tovah Feldshuh) folk wisdom. Enter Walker Jerome, "the blouse man," (Viggo Mortensen), a chiseled-jawed Nordic god right off the cover of a romance novel, a self-contained Merry Prankster in his own converted schoolbus, out of which he sells schmattes to the housewives in the camp. Sparks fly, and soon Pearl is getting schtupped and -- oy gevalt! -- muff-dived by Mr. Handsome Über-Goy just as Neil Armstrong lands on the moon: one small step for man, one giant lick for a nice Jewish girl from New York.

At the same time, daughter Allison is taking more tentative steps towards a first, more ethnically-appropriate romance, and their similar paths collide at Woodstock, where Allison is mortified to see her mother in a half-dressed, hallucinogen-induced stupor in the arms of the blouse man. Inevitably, a family crisis results in discovery, recriminations, disclosure of old secrets, and decisions to be made.

A WALK ON THE MOON has all the makings of an embarrassingly bad movie, but is saved by subtle characterizations perfectly placed in a generational context miraculously devoid of cliches, performed beautifully and understatedly by some of the finest and most underappreciated actors around today. Unlike most films about the 1960's, WALK is seen through the eyes of those for whom the social changes of the time are current and new, rather than through the cynical hindsight of the millennium. Pamela Gray's well-crafted screenplay avoids the trap of celebrating Pearl's quest to break free via adultery as a necessary and justified part of her personal growth. More so than THE END OF THE AFFAIR, this film depicts both the thrill of impulsive infidelity, and the pain that affects the straying spouse as much as the betrayed spouse, and of course, the children. And if the ending seems a bit facile and too tidily wrapped up, well, the journey has been as true a representation of longing, regret, and reconciliation as we've ever seen on film, which admittedly may not be saying much in a medium that celebrates being swept away by passion.

Diane Lane, a fine actress who made a huge splash as an extraordinarily pretty child in A LITTLE ROMANCE and hardly a ripple since, has finally come into her own with A WALK ON THE MOON, and more recently, the marvelous MY DOG SKIP. Looking astonishingly like the late Natalie Wood, she can portray an entire arsenal of emotions in just a thirty-second shot of her facial expressions. When Pearl admires her reflection in a tie-dyed T-shirt and removes her bra just to see what it feels like, we know what's coming without her saying a word. If Pearl is not particularly likeable, Lane vividly conveys the hunger of a woman who wants something "more", but isn't quite sure what "more" is until she finds it in the arms of a man not her husband.

As the post-hippie vagabond Walker Jerome, Viggo Mortenson looks good and smolders in accordance with his character's bodice-ripper roots, but there's something vaguely detached, manipulative, and even creepy about Jerome that makes him a less heroic character than he would have been in a more pat treatment of the subject matter. He supposedly represents freedom, but appears settled quite nicely in an improbably neat and tidy cottage, has never been to the places of which he collects pictures, and is entirely too well-mannered towards the uptight women that constitute his clientele to be the free spirit he is supposed to embody. And yet, this distancing of his character prevents the viewer from becoming so involved in the electricity of his relationship with Pearl (which is portrayed in two scenes of powerfully vivid, if cliched, romance-novel eroticism) that we forget Pearl's husband, a perfectly nice guy, and her two children.

Most films that depict female infidelity portray the wronged party as either abusive (the Caledon Hockley character in TITANIC) or a hopeless dullard (Stephen Rea's dour Henry Miles in THE END OF THE AFFAIR), unable to compete alongside the Golden Gods who inevitably portray the Other Man. Gray wisely eschews these stereotypes and has written Pearl's husband Marty (Liev Schreiber) as a moderately attractive, decent guy, who is still capable of having a good time, even if his idea of fun is singing "The Name Game" in the car with his kids and laughing at horrible comedians who insist on singing. That Marty too had to give up his dreams as a result of Pearl's unplanned pregnancy isn't known to either the viewer or Marty's own wife until halfway through the film, which gives us plenty of time to gain some perspective on him. Marty is shown as a conscientious employee, faithful husband and devoted father, even if he doesn't make love under waterfalls. Schreiber is terrific, particularly when Marty confronts Pearl with her infidelity, as he careens from pain to sarcasm to explosive rage and back to pain again. It isn't often that a film makes the husband an inherently more likable guy than the hunky lover. The discovery scene is authentic and gut-wrenching, even if Pearl is not one bit sorry for what she's done, but is very sorry she hurt her husband, and even more sorry she got caught.

Anna Paquin fares less somewhat less well as daughter Allison, who at fourteen is the same age I was that summer. I have never shared other critics' enthusiasm for this particular young lady, and while she has some wonderfully poignant moments (such as speaking for all children of straying spouses with a plaintive "Do you really love the blouse man more than us?"), she shows very little feel for the Major Issues about which even young teenagers felt so passionately then, but seems merely to be parroting lines.

Astonishingly enough, the Jewish angle is played with an affectionate amusement that only occasionally borders on parody. Julie Kavner's uncredited, but unmistakable voice appears constantly through the film; a Jewish Greek chorus as interpreted by Marge Simpson in hilarious camp-wide announcements, such as "The knish man is on the premises," and "Allison Kantrowitz, your father's on the phone. You're a woman now; may you be blessed with a wonderful marriage and beautiful children." As Pearl's wise-crone tea-leaf reading mother-in-law, stage veteran Tovah Feldshuh is far more gracious in the face of Pearl's infidelity than the mother of a nice Jewish boy in a shotgun marriage has any right to be when faced with her son's wife's lover. When the blouse man just happens to be on the scene during a family crisis, treating Pearl's son with the now well-known folk remedy Adolph's Meat Tenderizer for wasp stings, she snaps at him, "What is he, a pot roast?" just before benevolently serving him tea. I have a Jewish mother, and believe me, they don't suffer people who threaten the well being of their children gladly.

Contemporary filmmaking seems to require pulling together popular songs, the better to prop up the revenue numbers by selling soundtrack CDs. Often these pastiches are annoying, if not completely gratuitous, compiliations of the tackiest of American popular music. Yet the musical accompaniment to A WALK ON THE MOON consists entirely of what seems to be the best "B" sides from the 1960's artists with which we are already familiar. Instead of the expected Somebody to Love, we get Jefferson Airplane's Today, one of the most gorgeous ballads of the decade, and Embryonic Journey, an instrumental that is still astounding today. Instead of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi, or even Woodstock, we get Cactus Tree, the LAST track from her debut CLOUDS album. Instead of Janis Joplin's Ball and Chain, we get Summertime. If you listen hard enough, you can even hear a snippet of forgotten Jamaican ska/reggae pioneer Desmond Dekker's equally forgotten The Israelites. At times the music fits the scene so well it seems almost like a plot contrivance. But if you remember these songs, they will tap long-dormant memories. If you don't, and you think that Jefferson Airplane was no more than Grace Slick shrieking, you'll want to pack your significant other in the back of a VW bus (or the Ford Explorer), put Surrealistic Pillow on the CD player, and let Marty Balin serenade YOU as you go at it hot and furiously.

For all its hot sex in the summer of love, A WALK ON THE MOON is a deeply moral, yet uplifting film that never deteriorates into preachiness in its message that getting in touch with yourself need not involve destroying your family. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY explored this same territory, yet left us with the impression that Meryl Streep spent the rest of her life pining away for Clint Eastwood, reveling in her martyrdom of Doing the Right Thing. In this film, we sense that Pearl and Marty, having learned how to talk to each other, are going to be just fine. And as we now know, with a teenager in the house and Altamont on the way, they're going to need all the help they can get

 

A WALK ON THE MOON official video site (Miramax)

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.



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