Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Some of the most critically despised movies of recent years — Walker, The Dark Backward, Shakes the Clown, and several others you’ve never seen because the reviews scared you away from them — have been guilty favorites of mine. So when Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues opened to near-unanimous loathing, I had high hopes. Van Sant’s previous two movies, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, were oddball but terrific; maybe the critics just weren’t getting this one. For about half an hour, I was feeling pretty smug: The movie was entertaining, it looked great, and it was shaping up to be one of those films nobody likes except me. (That there were only three other people in the theater intensified my smugness.)

At about the 45-minute mark, though, I started checking my watch, which suddenly seemed frozen in limbo. Despite a promising start, Cowgirls is one of the most boring movies of all time, a ridiculous stew of mysticism, flat satire, and whimsy. Essentially, it’s a Warhol film played almost straight, with prancing queens, killer lesbians assaulting their foes with feminine body odor — all handled without irony. At least John Waters would have milked this material for all the rude humor it was worth. Van Sant, whose accepting, democratic style served him well in his earlier films, pays reverence to characters he should be scoffing at. By the time an old desert sage was saying “The earth is alive,” I was praying for Denis Leary to burst in and deflate the movie’s hippie-dippiness with a few verbal pinpricks.

Cowgirls is based on the cult novel by Tom Robbins, who narrates the movie; I haven’t read it, but it has to be better than Van Sant’s adaptation. Cissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman) is born with abnormally large thumbs, which help her to become the best hitchhiker ever. She gets involved with various weirdos, including a revolutionary group of cowgirls who have branched off from a fat-farm ranch and dedicated themselves to saving the whooping crane. This sounds bizarre enough to be engaging, if handled well, but the movie dies at about the same time the story develops some tension — should Cissy hit the road again or stay with her new love, Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix)? Again and again, Van Sant short-circuits the narrative with endless scenes of people discussing visions and destiny — the sort of conversation you hear at parties where the smell of weed hangs heavy in the air. I can’t remember the last time I was so grateful to see the end credits.

Van Sant is a respected filmmaker, so he lured lots of hip actors to contribute mostly meaningless cameos. Roseanne Arnold gets a few lines as a palm reader, Keanu Reeves appears as an asthmatic, John Hurt vamps his way through the fairly offensive role of “the Countess,” and many other performers (Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Buck Henry, Udo Kier, Angie Dickinson, Grace Zabriskie, Crispin Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Carol Kane) get chances to look foolish. What can you say about a movie in which Sean Young gives the best performance? About the only thing Cowgirls has going for it is k.d. lang’s mesmerizing, plaintive score, which was available in stores for months before the film’s release while Van Sant tinkered with the movie in a bootless attempt to make it watchable. Thanks to k.d., at least it’s listenable.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, cult, one of the year's worst

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