It's understandable that two of Hollywood's most acclaimed actresses would want their production companies to adapt "A Thousand Acres," Jane Smiley's epic family saga that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
The novel, based on "King Lear" with the contemporary twist of being told from the daughters' point of view, lucidly rendered a family's connection to its Iowa farmland, its individual loyalties and betrayals and its collective secret history.
This is such stuff as Oscars are made of.
Or should be. Jocelyn Moorehouse's filmed adaptation turns out to be a flaccid re-treading of the original work, made watchable only by a ferocious performance from Michelle Pfeiffer and an equally terrifying turn by Jason Robards as an indomitable patriarch coming undone.
But even their admirable performances aren't enough to lift "A Thousand Acres" from a plodding, episodic listlessness that reduces Shakespearean tragedy to movie-of-the-week melodrama.
Pfeiffer plays Rose Cook Lewis, younger sister of Ginny (Jessica Lange) and older sister of Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), all of them daughters of Larry Cook (Robards), a widower who has been farming the family's 1,000 acres all his life. The Cooks have been living in tense, dysfunctional stasis for years when Larry impulsively decides to divide the farm among his daughters, hurtling the family into emotional chaos with life-changing consequences.
Unlike "The English Patient," a filmed adaptation of another award-winning novel that was its own equally powerful work of art, "A Thousand Acres" hews closely to Smiley's book for its plotting, saving the novelist's lucent prose for Lange's self-consciously throaty narration.
Is it misguided reverence for the book or a subtle sign of Hollywood's contempt for the Midwest that lead the filmmakers to depict Iowa farm life in such tedious terms?
It's an uninspired trade-off. Rather than make Smiley's story their own, Moorehouse and screenwriter Laura Jones settle for a tepid, visually static re-hash, wherein the social issues the author wove into her book are pressed with hot-button force. Extra-marital affairs, breast cancer, recovered memory -- even the beleaguered aquifer -- are all introduced with an earnest, artless regularity. (The film's movie-of-the- week feel isn't helped much by a syrupy score or such implausible scenes as a farmer's outburst at a church supper.)
For all of its soapy elements, "A Thousand Acres" occasionally makes a family in pain come into vivid focus, especially during confrontations between Rose and Ginny, who have dealt with their troubled legacy in diametrically opposite ways. Rose survives by spewing out pent-up resentments; Ginny smiles and brings nervous fingers to her mouth rather than give voice to the unspeakable.
Both beg the question of whether rage or forgiveness is the correct moral response to immoral acts. It's a good question, but one that's probably better contemplated by reading a good book rather than watching a pale imitation.
'A Thousand Acres'
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Directed by Jocelyn Moorehouse
Released by Touchstone
Rated R (some strong sexual language)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 9/19/97