All in the family, unhappily


Lasse Hallstrom clearly doesn't know the rules. A Swede, he came to international prominence with "My Life as a Dog" and has moved over for an American career specializing in domestic reality and deceit. His best film was the brilliant "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," which stayed within the rules by confining itself to poor people.

But now he's gone and made a movie about rich people, and they're not evil scum raping the earth and burning the rain forest. They're just, er, people. You keep waiting for the irony, the sarcasm, the withering contempt, the social righteousness, but he never gets around to it. He's too busy trying to keep the plot moving.

The rich people live in South Carolina. They are primarily an aristocratic family -- an old lion of a dad, a resigned mom and two bright, beautiful daughters -- caught up in the dramas of their lives, which revolve around getting horses to jump over fences and getting each other to jump through hoops.

The script, by the same Callie Khourie who wrote "Thelma and Louise," clumsily attempts to draw parallels between the rider's mastery of his horse as he negotiates the maze of an equestrian course and the male's mastery of his mate as he negotiates the maze of life. But on both sides of the parallel, it's the story of breakdown. Essentially, the film documents the incremental collapse of the old male order, as both the errant father and one of the daughter's errant husbands receive justly deserved comeuppances.

It's a strange movie, where honesty and show-biz shtick battle for primacy, in which the elaborate parallel structure doesn't quite work. I don't think it ever comes together. But in surprising ways it's quite provocative.

The central character is Grace (a radiant Julia Roberts), who comes under pressure when she sees her husband Eddie

(Dennis Quaid) waiting in the rain, but not for her: For a beautiful young blonde, who slips her hand into Eddie's and the two of them take off.

A lot of the humor in the film is unconventionally cruel. It's derived from the amazing Grace, who puts aside the stereotype of repressed Southern womanhood and begins acting out when she discovers she's being cuckolded. She makes a scene in her bathrobe in a street in front of a bar; she breaks up her pitifully repressed woman's club meeting by bringing up the question: Has anyone had sex with my husband?

Her father, Wylie, played with Bull Meacham-like aplomb by Robert Duvall, is far more scandalized by her behavior than by his son-in-law's; he's been around that block himself. Everywhere Grace turns -- except to her spunky sister (Kyra Sedgewick, who actually looks a lot like Roberts) -- she meets indifference. She's up against a prejudice as deeply ingrained as the class structure: As boys will be boys, so will men be men. When they're bad, punish them for a bit, then forgive them and go on. The apple cart that is society, family, tradition and comfort is not to be upset for something so weightless as betrayal.

But Grace cannot accept such a mandate, and under the many subplots the drama of the story is whether she'll find the strength to upset that apple cart. Upset it? She kicks it down the steps, redefining along the way a whole set of relationships that grant her equality rather than mere security. It's not enough to be cared for, even lavishly, Khourie argues: You must be respected to be loved.

Yet what is most impressive about the movie are the odd notes of grace it provides its ostensible villains. The best scene in the movie is Quaid's, when his Eddie explains how he fell into his adultery as a function of the theretofore undiscussed sexual dysfunction between him and his wife. And the most interesting character is neither of the daughters but the old man, cocky as all get-out in his jodhpurs and boots over jaunty legs bowed from a lifetime of bending them around horses.

He's been a king for so long (that's even his name), and he's assumed that his is the only agenda that counts for so long, that he has forgotten that other people aren't mere extensions of his own ego. Yet neither Khourie or Hallstrom can bring themselves to hate him or declare him beyond salvage. In fact, he's a kind of a lovable old rogue, and the plot gently nudges him back toward humanity.

That is what's more impressive about the film than its overmanaged comic high jinx or its synthetic, quip-rich dialogue -- its sense of forgiveness and the sense that under our skins, we're all brothers and sisters.

"Something to Talk About"

Starring Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (profanity)

** 1/2

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