All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy’s elegiac novel about the loss of the West and the end of youth, has been adapted with respect and even some fervor by director Billy Bob Thornton and screenwriter Ted Tally. They have kept McCarthy’s narrative progression and large chunks of his laconic dialogue intact, but the film is too eager to please and falls short of the novel’s tragic dimension. (McCarthy’s final passage is the literary equivalent of John Wayne walking alone onto the prairie at the end of The Searchers.) As a boy’s action-adventure saga, however, it’s intermittently satisfying, especially if you love looking at horses and the raw rock sweep of the Southwest desert.
Dispossessed by his own mother of the East Texas ranch where he grew up, John Grady Cole (Matt Damon), with his best friend, Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), rides down to Mexico in the hopes of finding work and freedom. The year is 1949 and, in the U.S., the cowboy life is already a victim of big oil. Like the novel, the film is a classic coming-of-age tale. Lying out under the stars, the teenage Cole and Rawlins speculate about what it’s like to die. They begin their journey in innocence, but once they cross the Rio Grande, they find themselves facing death for real, and their belief in themselves and their friendship is put to the test. Hired as cowhands by a wealthy Mexican rancher (Rubén Blades), they prove their worth by breaking 16 wild mustangs in a four-day marathon. The sequence, which is shot largely at night and in close-up, captures the spare but visceral quality of McCarthy’s prose as nothing else in the film does.
Having earned a place in what he imagines could be his new home, Cole puts himself and Rawlins in jeopardy by becoming romantically involved with the rancher’s beautiful, headstrong daughter (Penélope Cruz). Almost before they know what hit them, the two friends find themselves in a Mexican prison. It’s a journey into hell which leaves them scarred in body and spirit.
There’s no getting around the fact that Damon is too old to pass for a teenager. Still, he has the robust physicality and emotional honesty that the role demands. As the more retiring Rawlins, Thomas displays similar conviction. But both are upstaged by Lucas Black as Jimmy Blevins, a horse thief and fledgling psycho killer. Blevins is the cowboy version of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. Moved by his vulnerability, Cole and Rawlins can’t bring themselves to brush him off, but they are also powerless to save him.
Running just over two hours, All the Pretty Horses is a choppy ride. (It’s reported to have been two hours longer in earlier versions.) What’s missing from the adaptation is the sense of history that gives the novel its scope and depth. An even more crucial problem is the absence, in Thornton’s direction, of a specific perspective on the land itself. Compared to films like Thelma and Louise or My Own Private Idaho, which filter familiar landscapes through the eyes of unique and profoundly alienated characters, All the Pretty Horses is merely picturesque.
Contrary to the title, the subject of What Women Want is not women’s desires. Rather, this hardworking but ineffective Mel Gibson vehicle is part of a comedy genre based on the premise that men don’t know exactly—to paraphrase Miss Swallow, Cary Grant’s bossy fiancée in Bringing Up Baby—who and what they are. Failing to heed Miss Swallow’s warnings, Grant’s stuffy paleontologist finds himself garbed in a marabou-trimmed negligee, mockingly proclaiming, “I’ve just gone gay.”
While What Women Want clearly owes something to Bringing Up Baby, a more direct model is Billy Wilder’s transcendent gender-fuck Some Like It Hot. You might think that the sight of a bare-chested Gibson painting his nails flaming red and waxing his legs would trump Lemmon and Curtis fooling with their falsies and girdles. But director Nancy Meyers and writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa have put their star at a disadvantage. Lemmon and Curtis could use each other, not to mention Marilyn Monroe, as foils; Gibson must play his big scene with only his mirror for company.
Hollywood trendspotters could make something of the fact that in two of Christmas 2000’s big studio releases, What Women Want and Cast Away, the male star spends long stretches alone, talking to himself, while his love interest, played in both films by Helen Hunt, languishes off-screen. And though it pains me to say it, Tom Hanks, as a contemporary Robinson Crusoe, wins the soliloquy competition hands down.
Gibson’s plight in What Women Want is less dire than being stranded for four years on a desert island. His Nick Marshall is a dedicated womanizer and the star of a Chicago advertising agency specializing in beer and car commercials. In an effort to boost an eroding bottom line, Nick’s boss (the avuncular Alan Alda, the only actor in the movie not to overplay his hand) decides to pursue the burgeoning female market for beauty products and hires Darcy MacGuire (Hunt) as creative director. Not content to take a backseat, the competitive Nick is determined to beat Darcy at her own game. Whence comes his lengthy, lonely investigation of nail polish, leg wax, Wonderbras, and panty hose. Preceded for no discernible reason by another solo sequence in which Nick does a soft-shoe routine to a Sinatra record (a game dancer, Gibson is hardly in a league with Grant, let alone Astaire), the foray into cross-dressing climaxes with him accidentally electrocuting himself with a hair drier. Narrowly escaping death, Nick wakes to discover that the current has altered his brainwaves, so that he can hear women’s thoughts as if they were spoken aloud. Once he gets over his astonishment that many women do not perceive him in a flattering light, he uses his newfound powers to secretly pick Darcy’s brain and steal her job.
Like Mick Jagger, Gibson is the kind of performer who needs to go into overdrive to find a groove. As age renders him less supple, it becomes harder for him to separate energy from tension. Gibson’s facial muscles are so tight that they seem to have driven his eyes into the back of his skull. This is the kind of acting problem that a perceptive director can spot and solve, but the heavy-handed Meyers is hardly the person to do it. What Women Want is so busy and noisy that Gibson has to work even harder than usual to make himself noticed above the din.
Gibson has never lacked chemistry with his leading ladies, from Sigourney Weaver in The Year of Living Dangerously to Julia Roberts in Conspiracy Theory, but faced with the awkward Hunt—Hollywood’s bland antidote to the Lolita syndrome—he doesn’t even try. What women do not want is to see Mel Gibson embarrassed and at a loss. I wish I could be sure it won’t happen again.