Daniels and Ryder almost make us care who 'Roxy'is


'Welcome Home,

Roxy Carmichael'

Starring Winona Ryder and Jeff Daniels.

Directed by Jim Abrahams.

Released by Paramount.

Rated PG-13.

... ** If I wanted message, I'd get Western Union. But I got "Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael," which hit me over the head with message. And it's a great message.

Here's the message (mark it and live by it and you'll be perfect): Get a life. Don't harbor illusions. Take responsibility for your own existence. Just do it.

But they should have gotten a movie before they started issuing moral instruction.

In a one-horse Ohio town quietly calcifying on the banks of Lake Erie (they think Cleveland is civilization!), a number of losers believe their lives would be better if a protean figure known as Roxy Carmichael, who hit it big, would return and save them.

And who is Roxy Carmichael? The movie is surprisingly vague on this. It insists on viewing her only in sexual and material terms. We see a body, a wonderful rear end, we see a collection of Vuitton luggage, we see fingernails like red daggers, we see limos. The account buttressing this mystery is even vaguer; Jeff Daniels, one of the high priests of the Roxy cult, explains lamely that someone wrote a song about her and then gave her the rights to the song, and then she used the profits to found a financial empire. Or something like that.

So it seems really that Roxy is famous for being famous which, to people of limited imagination and great crushing burdens of self-pity, seems salvation ipso facto. Thus her two most ardent admirers are Dinky Rossetti (Winona Ryder), a teen misfit who believes herself to be Roxy's long-lost daughter, while Denton Webb (Daniels), her abandoned boyfriend, believes that when she dumped him 15 years ago his whole life bottomed out, prosperous business, nice house and wife and two kids not withstanding.

If the movie almost works, it's because these two performers are extremely gifted, and manage to give each cliche a kind of nobility. Daniels has one of those faces that make you think you've met him sometime in your life, in a grocery store or a fraternity party. And this is exactly the kind of role he's best at -- off center, decent, troubled, a bit dippy. Move him to the center -- as did "Arachnophobia" -- and you've got problems.

And Ryder has teen ditzy angst, undercut with keen native intelligence, down brilliantly. She was much better in "Heathers," where she had better material, of course, but she still manages to bring charm and specificity to the performance.

But the movie is full of bizarre developments that somewhat mute its inspirational thrust. Clyde, Ohio, seems in some sense a sister city of Twin Peaks, Washington. There's a hint that the great Roxy was bisexual and that one of her female lovers was left with the same hollowness of heart as was Daniels. There's an extremely weird scene where Dinky and her guidance counselor not only go shopping together but end up in the same dressing room, where they compare breasts. Really. In Ohio!

Director Jim Abrahams' attempts to satirize the small town meet with equally mixed success. Dinky's stepmother is a complete cartoon, so outlandish she belongs on "The Simpsons." If the woman is brutalized by the portrayal, Dinky's boyfriend is hopelessly sentimentalized. In the end there's an uncomfortable mixture of parody and naturalism, with different characters really living in different worlds, so that when they get together, it's like a mixture of live action and animation. Who framed Roxy Rabbit?

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