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Falling from Grace
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by Jack Sommersby

"John Mellencamp's Masterpiece of a Filmmaking Debut"
5 stars

With assured direction, a marvelous script, and penetrating performances, this unhearlded 1992 treasure is deserving of rediscovery.

I cringe when I hear or read the term "chick flick" because (for the most part) the films that get included in this category are usually bad or contradictory to what they supposedly represent: that of strong-willed women not taking any guff from men and emerging as three-dimensional, emotionally sound individuals on the silver screen. Now, Colin Higgin's dandy 1980 comedy 9 to 5 went about this right (however broadly) with Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as discriminated-upon office workers exacting due revenge against their vile and chauvinistic boss (Dabney Coleman). However, for every 9 to 5 there's a Hope Floats, which found Sandra Bullock huffing and puffing independence up until the last quarter of the film, which was sadly earmarked to ultimately get her into the arms of Harry Connick, Jr. It was then, and only then, that her problems and inner turmoil seemed to recede; Bullock could have righted all the wrongs in the world, but in the end, she just had to have a man to make her feel complete and worthy of love and affection. This also played a part in the awful Hanging Up, the Diane Keaton-directed pic where Meg Ryan needed the wooing of a sensitive doctor to set her mind straight. Pathetic.

The thing is, I don't even know if women would have gone agog over John Mellencamp's masterpiece Falling from Grace during its theatrical release back in May of 1992 because it was meagerly released, opening on only one theatre here in Dallas and disappearing no more than a week thereafter. (Its distributor, Columbia Pictures, showed absolutely no faith in it. The result? A palsy $231,826 take at the box office.) Sure, it's been available on video for nine years now, but the basic surface impression to be derived from the video box cover appeals either to country music fans in general or Mellancamp fans in specific, with the two dominating actresses, Kay Lenz and Mariel Hemingway, coming off as mere window-dressing. It has been a grave injustice that Falling from Grace has gone ignored for so long, and not just because it's as impressive a film as you're likely to see but due to the plain and simple fact that its portrait of two very strong-willed female individuals should be the stuff of true chick flicks which invoke discussions around office water coolers and shopping-center food courts.

While Falling from Grace is a work of fiction, it's said to be as accurate a portrait of John Mellancamp's life as possible, with the central character Mellencamp plays -- that of country-singer sensation Bud Parks -- coming off as a deeply flawed and downright selfish son of a bitch. This isn't some chickenshit star vehicle like the generic George Strait cinematic cream puff Pure Country. It's a harsh, complex, searing character study that pulls no punches nor tells any trumped-up lies; it's the real deal. It's the film's refusal to pander down to the general popcorn-munching crowd in sugarcoating bitter emotional wounds and stereotyping easy-to-read characters, however, that was likely its box-office undoing -- the studio knew they didn't have an IQ-depleted aesthetic disgrace on their hands. What the hell to do with it? The answer, apparently, was to throw it to the wolves. (Only one theater in Dallas/Fort Worth carried it: the posh Prestonwood Mall in Dallas, where upscale soccer moms were sure to turn their noses up at a film that dared imply that women speak their minds and refuse to take any shit from a famous and wealthy lover or husband). While I cannot possibly instigate a revival of this at theatres nationwide, I do hope to generate some interest in this film, to where the curious-minded might be inclined (however slightly) to give this a chance during their next visit to the video store.

The film opens with Bud, his wife Alice (Hemingway), their pre-teen daughter Terri Jo (Melissa Ann Hackman), and bodyguard Bobby (Tracy Cowles) arriving via private jet in Bud's hometown, Doak City, Indiana, to attend his grandfather's eightieth birthday. Not surprisingly, Bud's arrival is the talk of the town. But the townfolk here are less of the crazed sort than the humble, respectful kind who help make Bud's visits ingratiating -- he doesn't have to worry about standing on the receiving end of a hundred flash bulbs at a time. The Parks clan is a very interesting bunch, to say the least. There's Bud's half-brother Ramey (an appealing Larry Crane), who was sired out of wedlock; his philandering father Speck (Claude Akins), who did the siring and who operates the family's lucrative chicken business; his tail-between-his-legs brother Parker (Brent Huff) who toes whatever line Speck draws up; and his sister-in-law P.J. (Kay Lenz), who's married to Parker but used to be Bud's girl all through high school, and who is currently entertaining Speck between the sheets. Added to this, Speck's resentful of Bud's success; Parker's jealous of it; and P.J., well, hasn't quite gotten over her first love.

It shouldn't take a genius to surmise that Bud's visit is going to no doubt open up some old wounds -- and inflict some new ones, as well. Bud, who's still infatuated with P.J. and soon instigates an affair with her, is soon following in the footsteps of a father he detests but, in a lot of ways, isn't too much different from. Familiar, no? What's amazing and totally refreshing about Falling From Grace, what makes it decidedly different from limp and stale tv movies which cover similar story terrain almost every week, is that the conflicts on display here seem genuine and internally motivated, and not by-products of a by-the-numbers writer, and the characters, instead of being off the stereotypical lot, reveal more than one knowing side to themselves -- their own reactions sometimes surprise them more than us. When P.J. tells Bud she's screwing his father, he's outraged not by the infidelity aspect in regards to his mother but that this man is having his way with a woman whom he still feels entitled to have. P.J., in turn, isn't ashamed about her infidelity to Parker, whom she feels she's been a supportive wife to, a responsible mother for their children, and (as she sees it) the best thing that could have ever happened to him.

No, you may not grow to like P.J. too much, or Bud either, which is perfectly fine because Mellencamp (who makes his directorial debut here) and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (who penned the novel and teleplay to the award-winning miniseries Lonesome Dove) never ask you to. Instead of burdening us with a high-minded sense of shame, Mellencamp and McMurtry refuse to judge these flawed characters; they recognize human complexity as something to be delicately revealed and not uncouthly exploited for the benefit of simpletons (you know, the ones who think Sleepless in Seattle is the definitive expose on modern relationships). Watching Falling from Grace is like eavesdropping on a family's delicate domestic matters in the most unobtrusive manner. We feel the right to be there, even if what we're witnessing does make us somewhat uncomfortable, which is what makes a challenging filmgoing experience a unique and pleasurable thing to take in: it affords us the aesthetic distance to get a keen reading on real-life situations without having to face the repurcussions. Yet we're never totally off the hook. We become involved in the film on such a deep and apprehensive level that we feel like squirming and turning away from the screen when the characters find themselves in uncomfortable situations -- their emotional plights are totally identifiable and lucidly rendered.

I appreciated the fact that Mellencamp refused to soften any aspect of Bud whatsoever, that, in his acting debut, he was more than willing to come across as an unlikable individual. Well, hold on. He's not totally unlikable -- he possesses a warm and tender and caring side under his tough-guy exterior that Alice's perceptive nature first saw through to -- but he's too self-conscious about his own shortcomings. Bud's of the self-destructive type who, no matter how many great things in his life stare him right in the face, needs only the slightest excuse to foul things up, to bring himself down to a level he subconsciously believes he belongs on. While lust most definitely plays a part in his affair with P.J., deep down the main motivation is that of revenge against both Speck and P.J. -- he can screw the man he resents by screwing the women who's screwing him, and the woman who, in his eyes, has screwed him by being with another man, even though it was he who abandoned her. And though he'd never admit to it, Bud (ego- and machismo-charged) needs his father's acceptance as the final stick-in-the-eye -- it would mean that Speck was wrong in not supporting his son's honkytonk dreams. Since Bud can't get that, what better way to exact revenge than screwing his cheating father's own mistress?

In the pivotal role of P.J., who loves Bud but doesn't particularly need him, Kay Lenz is magnificent. A beautiful and immensely talented actress, Lenz never got the proper breaks early on in her career, leaving her steadily employed in a long string of b-movies and disposable tv fare. As James Woods' conniving lover in the little-seen prison flick Fast-Walking, she did something almost unheard of: she effortlessly stole the limelight from her dynamic co-star. And as the gutsy policewoman in the Roger Corman-produced Stripped to Kill she was emotionally accessible and sturdy in a showy but two-dimensional role. Here, with a finely conceived and developed character, she gets to strut her stuff, delivering a performance so vivid and lived-in and so full of tension and variety that you can see why Bud's never gotten over P.J., why Alice finds her inseparable company, why Parker is so self-satisfied with his marriage, and why Speck needed her willingness as a challenge to conquer. Lenz is a natural with dialogue, and she seems incapable of making a false move on the screen; it's a rare actress who can be vivid, sexy, and complex all at the same time, and Lenz makes acting look so easy she makes you truly wonder what business second-rate talents like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan have at all being projected on movie screens.

Mariel Hemingway, who was last seen to considerable disadvantage in the odious The Contender, is equally impressive, refusing to play Alice as the whimpering, long-suffering type who seems to have been rehearsing for years what she'd say and how she'd react upon discovery that her husband was unfaithful. Keenly focused and uncannily alert, Hemingway has never been this good. Alice is assured and strong a woman as P.J., and while they both experience anguish, P.J.'s is of the more controlled kind, where Alice, a faithful wife and wholesome mother, can't help but be floored by Bud's cheating -- the scene where she bravely holds back tears while confronting him is a keeper, as is her handling of the skillet-to-the-face scene with Speck, who makes the huge mistake of trying to put his uninvited hands on her. (It also helps that Hemingway is a good deal taller than Atkins or Mellencamp; you sense that Alice could effectively wallop Bud as well as Speck without exerting a whole lot in the way of effort.)

How is Mellencamp in front of and behind the camera? As an actor he hasn't a whole lot of depth; but he does have good screen presence, is interesting to watch, and is more than willing to appropriately underplay and let his more talented co-stars have a run at things. Mellencamp doesn't let the other actors swamp him; instead, he shows a fine instinct for knowing who to keep the focus on within any given scene and whose place is warranted in the back- and foreground action. This is not a film made by an ego-driven superstar -- but by a man who recognizes his faults as a human being and has no qualms about letting other people know about them. The film offers up behavioral insights rather than easy excuses for its star's sinful ways.

As a director, Mellencamp is assured and adequate, which is perfectly fitting being that obtrusive 'Look, Ma -- I'm directing!' camerawork of the nauseating Stone/Scorsese/Aronofsky variety would have called attention away from the characters and unfortunately onto the film as such. Though a few scenes are awkwardly shaped near the beginning and toward the end, with Dennis Virkler's editing unwisely snipping a crucial second or two off of others, the film has been crisply and impressively made, with smooth pacing and Mellencamp's proper staging keeping this dialogue-laden enterprise full of variety and visual astuteness. The robust soundtrack (none too surprisingly in a film about a sensational singer) also helps out matters a great deal.

Falling from Grace isn't likely to appeal to a whole lot of people, which I can accept. Not everyone is favorably predisposed to Mellencamp, something you don't necessarily have to be to enjoy the film -- I was no fan and hugely enjoyed it the first time -- and those who prefer action-oriented fare will more or less be bored by the endless talking heads. No sweat, any of this. Still, I can't help but feel that there is a wider audience out there for it. (If only enough people will take the chance and see it!) For every fifty direct-to-video calamities that appear in the New Release section at Blockbuster which continually get rented out, there's a crowning jewel, a neglected gem of a film that lays, covered in dust, on a shelf surrounded by others of lesser quality that draw more attention due to their catchy titles and famous stars but wind up delivering very, very little. Consider Falling from Grace a long-abandoned orphan that's ripe and long overdue for rediscovery. Please.

A considerable achievement for all involved -- especially Kay Lenz, in a dynamic supporting performance.

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originally posted: 01/04/03 03:26:28
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User Comments

2/06/03 Rudy Medrano What is name of band that performed in bar scene Finger Poppin' Time & Sweet Soul Music 5 stars
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  21-Feb-1992 (PG-13)
  DVD: 09-Nov-2004



Directed by
  John Mellencamp

Written by
  Larry McMurtry

  John Mellencamp
  Mariel Hemingway
  Claude Akins
  Dub Taylor
  Kay Lenz
  Larry Crane

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