"The Bridges of Madison County" is as good as it is because of its performances. It's as bad as it is because of its source.
In case you've been living under a rock, the plot of "The Bridges of Madison County" goes like this: Rugged individualistic photographer taking pictures of covered bridges in Iowa has affair with Italian-American farm wife that isn't just an affair, but the eternal love of a lifetime, even though it lasts only four days.
Your faithful critic has to get her personal "Bridges" book bias out of the way. In spite of myself, I was moved by Robert James Waller's manipulative novel when, at the end, it tacked on its "proof" that his characters shared true love. But I also felt used and annoyed because the prose was so overbearing and the story was so preposterous.
Although the "Bridges" film is better than the book, it's even harder to suspend disbelief watching a movie. The characters aren't just played out in your head, where you can blame their odd behavior on poetic license. They're right there in front of you, and when they say something exalted, it sounds utterly unnatural.
As National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, Clint Eastwood has more than a few lines like that. He says something poetic at the dinner table, and the words hover for a second in the air, then fall, kerplunk, into the stuffed peppers.
At least the movie has fewer absurd lines than the book, which had Robert repeatedly saying such things as "I'm one of the last cowboys" and "We'll make love in desert sand and drink brandy on balconies in Mombasa, watching dhows from Arabia run up their sails in the first wind of morning." That kind of talk may make you want to call a travel agent, but it's peculiar speech.
Richard LaGravenese's screenplay spiffs up Waller's dialogue a bit. One of his chief additions is humor. The laughs help out the story that frames the romance, in which the kids of housewife Francesca find her journal after her death and thus come to terms (in glib and easy fashion) with her affair. The humor also gives Francesca more bite: When the photographer asks her if she's busy, she says, "I was just going to have some iced tea and then split the atom -- but that can wait."
LaGravenese, whose impressive credits include "The Fisher King" and the recently adapted "A Little Princess," actually lets Francesca (Meryl Streep) chew out the loner photographer-poet for all his pretensions. She even questions his girl-in-every-port past, worried that she's just another cheap affair (whereas in the book, she said: "I cannot think of restraining you for a moment. To do that would be to kill the wild, magnificent animal that is you").
Streep lends poignancy, sensuality and simplicity to the character, elevating the plot far above the Hallmark/Harlequin level into the realm of genuine feeling. She's the heart of this movie. She gets to do an Italian accent, too, and we all know Meryl Streep can do an accent like nobody else.
Eastwood does what he can with his goofy lines. When he's talking like a normal person, he's likable and as convincing as he can be, considering that his character is a very thin sketch of a romance-novel fantasy man. Think of Robert as Fabio at 52.
As director, Eastwood captures some lovely moments, but they alternate with too many boring ones. Francesca and Robert's first dance goes on longer than Fred Astaire's career. (At least they're dancing to good music. The film is filled with great old blues tunes.)
Together, Streep and Eastwood have compelling chemistry. Their characters' sexual attraction is palpable -- in that sense, the film captures the book perfectly. But that doesn't mean we ultimately believe their four-day affair carried them through a lifetime. There are too many blanks in their relationship. Francesca's dreams keep coming up, but we never find out what they are. And Robert's past is an emotional blank.
The book, which was written as if it were a true story, offered evidence at the end to convince us that Robert stayed true to Francesca until he died. The movie does, too. While this "proof" is touching, it is also proof that the rest of the story didn't do what it was supposed to do -- make us believe.
"The Bridges of Madison County"
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 (language, brief nudity)