A FRIEND with a wife from the South reports that the regional dish known as "fried green tomatoes" is very good, but -- and it's a big but -- only if made with hard tomatoes.
And that's the problem with "Fried Green Tomatoes," the movie: It's made with soft tomatoes.
The soft tomatoes are the squishy sentimentality at center that dooms the movie to a timid course. It doesn't quite have the courage to face its own implications and so leaves the story that follows in a kind of blur apt to offend no one but equally incapable of moving anyone.
Based on Fannie Flagg's novel "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," it's a tale of female bonding played out in two eras for ironic counterpoint: the more oppressive '30s, when the wrong remark might get you a visit from the boys in the white hoods, and the '90s, where the oppressors are less apt to belong to the Klan of the Ku Klux as to the clan of the thin and beautiful -- especially if you are fat and not beautiful.
The framing story is set in a nursing home outside Birmingham, Ala., where the unloved Evelyn, a middle-aged porkola in polyester who never met a Snickers bar she didn't like, has been exiled to the visiting room by her lout of a husband and his senile
aunt, and there makes the acquaintanceship of octogenarian Ninny Threadgoode. (If you don't like cute names like "Ninny Threadgoode," you better bail out now, because the ick has just begun.)
Ninny -- the ever radiant and wonderful Jessica Tandy -- is a yarn-spinner, a spell-weaver with Southern Bills Styron and Faulkner's gift for the well-turned phrase. In about an instant, she's got poor Evelyn (Kathy Bates) hopelessly enmeshed in the tangled Gothic tale of her mysterious relative Idgie (ick!) Threadgoode and Idgie's best friend Ruth, back when the two women ran the Whistle Stop Cafe during the Depression. In fact the story begins on the day that Idgie is arrested for the murder of Ruth's husband and proceeds to go back ward, forward, downside up and upside down from there until it solves the crime.
Seems that Idgie had always hated womanly things; put her in her party dress and she'll shred it in minutes. These tendencies accelerated after the death of her beloved older brother Buddy in a freak railway accident. Idgie was much happier when scrounging around in boots and trousers, smoking roll-your-owns, drinking 'shine and out-cursing and out-gambling all the boys down at the roadhouse. It takes some doing for the pretty little Mary Stuart Masterson to make this curiously androgynous character authentic, but generally she succeeds.
Ruth is more conventional: She's the Southern girl as delicate damsel, perhaps a bit too perfect for this world -- a little of Melanie Wilkes -- and Mary-Louise Parker's performance is the triumph of the movie: She manages to turn Ruth sweet and vulnerable yet somehow wise without making her despicably precious.
Flagg in her novel was explicit as to certain realities. Clearly Ruth and Idgie are lesbians, and yet by their humanity and toughness, their love of their community and its inhabitants (of all colors, creeds and classes), they heroically transcended stereotype and in some way held the little town of Whistle Stop together, on more than just their fried green tomatoes. In their neck of Alabama, they were civilization.
The director, Jon Avnet, prefers to gaze in other directions. The issue of sexuality is never broached, as if it doesn't exist and no one might wonder about it. The two are just mildly eccentric, affectionate friends and the whole relationship has a curiously dreamy quality to it. The relationship has been stripped of its heroism and inserted into a less troubling tradition of eccentricity.
This seriously undercuts the humane message in the novel, which watched as the pudgy Evelyn learned from her gay sisters and became a stronger, more self-reliant woman. Avnet, by contrast, chooses to play this part of the story strictly for coarse laughs, and lets Bates turn Evelyn into an oafish comic character. The laughs are big -- especially when she crushes the Volkswagen of two snippy younger women who've treated her like pond scum -- but somehow the character's pathos and her salvation are undermined.
Other lapses mar the film. The solution to the mystery of who killed Ruth's horrid husband is abrupt as is the imposition of a sudden death by cancer to jack a little pathos into the story. Avnet has a wonderful feel for the sense of family and community that pervaded Whistle Stop in the '30s, and makes us mourn its passing and honor proud, decent Ninny as its last champion. But there's almost too much story for him to cram into two hours, and the movie feels both too long and too short at once.
"Fried Green Tomatoes"
CAST: Starring Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates.
DIRECTOR: Jon Avnet