Heaven and Earth

Throughout his career, Oliver Stone had been pilloried for his mostly insignificant female characters. So in 1993 he offered a double whammy — producing The Joy Luck Club and directing this long, anguished account of the tumultuous life of Le Ly Hayslip, through whose eyes Stone frames the experience of Vietnam one last time (let’s hope). Le Ly, a Vietnamese village girl who endures one horror after another, is beautifully played by Hiep Thi Le in her first acting job. But the narration Stone gives her to read is awfully klutzy; the movie spans several decades and feels absurdly compressed, as if we’re not seeing a life but a series of appalling events that Le Ly can overcome. Since it is based on fact — Stone’s script is taken from Le Ly’s memoirs When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace — it’s callous to dismiss it as an epic women’s weepie, but that’s how it’s structured. Stone can’t resist hyping Le Ly’s pain; the movie becomes an epic tone poem of suffering.

About an hour in, Tommy Lee Jones appears as the fictional composite character Steve Butler, a Marine who marries Le Ly, fathers two of her children, and takes her back to San Diego with him. Jones gives a strikingly vulnerable performance in what is essentially a stereotype straw-man role (the psycho ‘Nam vet), and the San Diego scenes boil down to: Don’t trust Americans and don’t trust men. Stone, who is both, seems to be engaging in a peculiar form of self-laceration, as if he yearned for Le Ly’s indomitable simplicity, and some of the last half is touching. At the same time, you know you’re getting the Oliver Stone distillation of the story, and he makes everything pompous, chaotic, high-pitched — as if Jim Morrison were behind the wheel. He rams the heroine’s agony down your throat instead of letting you feel it for yourself. This is an honorable failure (it was probably the biggest flop of ’93) with the best of intentions, but the material is wrong for Stone, who ends up falling back on his usual brutal tricks. The real Le Ly has a cameo as a jewelry broker.

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Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, biopic

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