The story begins and ends in the middle of a two-lane blacktop that cuts across an empty prairie. But there is nothing middle-of-the-road about
Gus Van Sant’s new film, My Own Private
Now, Van Sant has persuaded two other bankable young Hollywood actors, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, to take on risky roles—as male prostitutes in a highly unorthodox buddy movie. My Own Private Idaho is also a road movie, a vagabond odyssey that circles through Idaho, Italy and Oregon in a search for home, mother and America. It unfolds largely from the viewpoint of a narcoleptic (someone seized by attacks of deep sleep) who keeps nodding off in one place and waking up somewhere else. The story, meanwhile, borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. The result is the art-film equivalent of a rainbow-layered cocktail—gaudy, outrageous and intoxicating.
Idaho. The American writer-director made his name two years ago with the critically acclaimed Drugstore Cowboy, which featured a dark, edgy performance by Matt Dillon as an unrepentant junkie.
Combining male prostitution, narcolepsy, Shakespeare and American wanderlust in a single picture requires a certain audacity.
And the movie does not always measure up to Van Sant’s heady ambitions. But its unusual blend of comedy, pathos and hallucination is invigorating. Its images are evocative—a reminder of Van Sant’s origins as a painter. And as the story’s sleep-prone hero,
Mike, Phoenix gives a terrific performance, a display of private intensity that recalls screen legend James Dean. Phoenix does .not mimic Dean’s style—which has become a cliché—but he possesses the same quality of interior conviction, that unflinching focus on an emotional middle distance.
Phoenix and Reeves portray male hustlers who are estranged from radically different backgrounds. Mike is an emotionally disturbed drifter without a past or a future. His childhood is a blurred memory, and he is haunted by images of his mother, whom he is desperately trying to track down. Scott (Reeves), meanwhile, is a slumming rich kid—his father is the wealthy mayor of Portland, Ore.
That is where Henry /Fcomes into play. Like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, Scott is a prodigal son who is keeping his options open. He secret-
ly plans to go straight when he inherits his father’s fortune. And like Hal, he betrays his derelict mentor, a shambling Falstaff figure named Bob (William Richert). In an awkward re-staging of the Gadshill robbery in Henry iv, Part I, Scott and Mike disguise themselves and ambush Bob and his men, who have just stolen some proceeds from a rock concert. Van Sant makes a blithe mockery of Shakespeare’s original language. When Bob asks the time of day, Scott replies: “What do you care? You wouldn’t even look at a clock unless hours were lines of coke, dials looked like the signs of gay bars and time itself was a fair hustler in black leather.” The interludes of bastardized Shakespeare seem deliberately sophomoric, and they tend to drag down the whole midsection of the movie. Van Sant has said that he is not reviving Henry IV so much as paying homage to Chimes at Midnight (also titled Falstaff), a 1966 film by Orson Welles about a generous old knight and the prince who broke his heart. Either way, the analogy is overworked. Although the Prince Hal business is central, when Van Sant tries to spell it out the movie begins to resemble a skit.
However, Van Sant’s willingness to take risks without fear of looking foolish is what makes the rest of the film so appealing. He creates a wonderfully preposterous sequence in which half-naked cover boys on a rack of gay pom magazines come to life and start discuss-
ing their trade. There is also a coffee-shop scene of confessions from male prostitutes that plays with the stark realism of a documentary. And the whole movie is intercut with hyperbolic images of rural America—salmon jumping upriver, clouds churning through a fast-motion sky, an abandoned farmhouse crashing upside down onto an open road.
Meanwhile, the narrative jumpcuts back and forth between reality and dream. And because it views events through narcoleptic eyes, there are yawning gaps in continuity. Mike keeps falling asleep; Scott keeps coming to his rescue. But Scott’s affection is transient: while helping Mike look for his mother in Italy, Scott’s romance with a girl named Carmella (Chiara Caselli) comes between them.
Reeves has a disturbing talent for playing shallow characters— from the callow swordsman in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) to the heavy-metal yokel in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). In My Own Private Idaho, he is well cast as an opportunist who conducts his life as a series of poses. As the story progresses, Scott’s selfishness becomes more sinister, Mike’s desolation more tragic. But Van Sant is continually leavening the mood with surreal jokes.
Ultimately, Van Sant’s narrative technique proves more provocative than his subject matter.
The movie is not really about prostitution or homosexuality. It is about the loyalties of family and class, the amnesia of childhood and the outlaw affections of adolescence. But most of all, it is about the endless ribbon of the road itself. And for all its narcolepsy, My Own Private Idaho takes a cinematic detour worth staying awake for.
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