'The War' is both too sugary and too pretty to represent real life

In "The War," Kevin Costner is the perfect '90s dad: He shares his pain, he's in touch with his feelings, he loves his kids and he respects his wife.

Unfortunately, it's 1970, and everyone thinks he's nuts.


Thus the new Jon Avnet film, "The War," progresses over well-trod ground from the get-go: marshmallow-hearted, touchy-feely, oh-so-PC and, despite a fleet of dirty faces, squeaky-clean. It's so relentlessly high-minded it makes one want to join the NRA, slip a few bucks to Ollie North and pass along a deliciously obscene Hillary joke.

In its quest for the higher qualities of life, it resembles Avnet's last film, "Fried Green Tomatoes," also set in a mythically pristine South, about two women who were very close friends but which dared not speak the name of that love.


In this movie, it's family love that's given the lush romantic treatment, turned so valentine-pure it seems to have hailed from the last chapter of a self-help book. Costner plays Stephen Simmons, an ex-Marine who carries with him traumatic memories from the war he's just barely survived, and is unable, for that reason, to hold a job in rural Mississippi. But he still desperately attempts to keep his family together, in spite of his own vagaries, intense economic pressure and what seems to be an odd disregard from the society around him.

Immediately, however, little niggling difficulties set in. What was he, a man in his late 30s with two children, doing as an infantry PFC in the Marine Corps, which didn't draft? It's said he was a volunteer. Did the Marines accept volunteers over the age of 30 with two children? I don't think so. His isolation from his community is equally odd: This isn't the big city, or urbane culture, which by 1970 believed 'Nam vets to be baby-killers. No, it's the dirt-poor, mule-proud, patriotism-mad small-town South, then as now unpenetrated by anti-war culture. Yet no one pays him a lick of attention or respect. Hard to believe.

Equally hard to believe is Avnet's vision of the rural South as an enchanted glade. What part of the South is this, the Disney World part? Is it a theme park just to the left of Fantasyland called "Outhouseland?" It has the same phony-quaintness, the same sapphire-blue skies and postcard pictorialism. This extends even to the movie's signature attempt at realism: the dirty face. All the kids in the film have artfully applied dab jobs that lack the intensity of true grit but seem instead applied by an effete makeup guy with a No. 4 Revlon brush. It's just unbearably phony.

No matter, I suppose. The true subject of "The War" is the passing of wisdom, father to son. The focus of the film isn't so much on Costner and his mild Southern accent but on Elijah Wood as his son Stuart and Lexi Randall as his daughter Lidia who, because of their dad's difficulties, find themselves on the bottom of the economic and social pyramid, so low that even the junkyard owner's tribe of dirty-faced barbarians look down upon them. But that's not bad, it's good, because it enables them to demonstrate their higher virtue by bonding with two African-American young women, Elvadine (LaToya Chisholm) and Amber (Charlette Julius), the best things in the movie (though I hate the condescending names).

But the movie doesn't exactly roar along. It has plenty of time for Costner to indulge in hysterical 'Nam flashbacks, all filmed at night so you don't notice the pine trees; and a number of Li'l Rascal-type adventures as his kids inter-relate with the dirty-faced Lipnicki tribe from the junkyard. Meanwhile, as his dutiful wife, Mare Winningham suffers stoically in the background, unnoticed by cast, director or screenwriter.

The second half of the film comes to turn on a symbolic battle for a treehouse apparently built by the kids from a blueprint from Philip Johnson (one of those movie-phony treehouses), in which Elijah Wood tries to process the moral epigrams passed on to him by his father: Is it all right to fight for something, or is all fighting wrong? But, of course, the movie can't explore this dilemma -- the dilemma of modern society, after all -- with any authenticity. You know that nothing's at stake, and indeed the movie resolves itself in an unbearably phony "save a kid from drowning so we can all be pals" deal. It made my fillings ache.

Many people will love this movie, this I cannot deny. Count me out, however: It's so edgeless, so treacly-sweet and fundamentally dishonest as it trafficks in moist little family homilies that it has the same drooling sincerity of a Dan Quayle speech. Yes, you think, he's right, but why does he have to be so blasted sanctimonious about it?

"The War"


Starring Elijah Wood and Kevin Costner

Directed by Jon Avnet

Released by Universal

Rated PG

** 1/2