Patchwork saga

How To Make an American Quilt stitches a contrived view of romance

When you hear that an upcoming film has generated a positive "buzz," that usually means one thing--studios expect it to make money and win positive critical reactions and a fistful of Oscar nominations.

Jocelyn Moorhouse's multi-generational comic-romantic epic How To Make an American Quilt has created so much advance excitement that Universal bumped its release date from mid-November to early October--a rather uncommon trajectory, since many films are forever postponed because the studios are nervous about their reception.

Featuring a young female star fresh off glowing reviews (Winona Ryder from her Oscar-nominated performance in Gillian Armstrong's Little Women remake) and a cast of brilliant supporting actresses who were put out to TV-movie pasture around the age of 50 (Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, Kate Nelligan), How To Make an American Quilt is supposed to be the "women's film" of the fall, a story that will, for an hour and 45 minutes, wrench the American movie perspective from gun-toting, wisecracking male heroes.

The scorching trials that this cast undergoes are purported to be the kind that women will especially respond to, since they are a safari of the emotions, a feet-first foray into infidelity, marital commitment, sisterly betrayal, menstruation, and menopause. The audience around me at American Quilt's screening was mostly women past childbearing age, and they responded to the film with a mixture of hearty laughter and puzzled silence.

That's the problem, you see, in trying to make a film aimed at what a specific audience "wants." You lose the impulse to seek universal relevance in the characters' dilemmas, the thrilling moment of emotional connection that anyone who buys a ticket can make, and rely on strictly demographic ideas of what a particular audience wants. Inevitably, you emerge with a bouquet of cliches and stereotypes.

How To Make an American Quilt trivializes itself in the way the dramatic stories of tumultuous male-female relationships--here told unflaggingly from the female perspective--are piled one on top of another, the gut-wrenching emotions of the characters played interchangeably for grand drama or comic relief, depending on the mood of writer Jane Anderson's script. "You know the hardest thing about being a woman?" Nelligan asks a beleaguered Ryder. "Having women friends." With director Moorhouse's occasionally lighthearted attitude toward profound personal betrayals, you can't help but view her narration of these women's lives as weirdly amused, even belittling.

The story's premise is a fairly predictable anthology of sour romances played out against the backdrop of several generations. Graduate student Finn (Ryder) has just received a marriage proposal from her long-time boyfriend Sam (Dermot Mulroney from Living in Oblivion). Excited but scared, she decides to spend the summer at the pastoral, orchard-surrounded home of her grandmother Hy (Burstyn) and great-aunt Glady Joe (Bancroft), a place where she used to dawdle underneath the great wooden table while Hy, Glady Joe, and their gaggle of women friends and relatives (Nelligan, Maya Angelou, Lois Smith, Jean Simmons) gossip and stitch as part of the county's largest quilting bee.

The brief opening sequence, in which a little girl sits underneath the sunlight-touched fabric of a quilt as a dozen shadowy hands dart and sweep over her head, is filmed as a delightful fantasy, while Ryder narrates breathlessly about the first women who ignited her imagination.

Finn returns to this oaken, leatherbound, serene home as an adult to work on her graduate thesis and mull over Sam's marriage request. The women she encounters from her childhood are quite a bit older than she remembers, and more determined than ever to have some kind of influence on her romantic destiny.

This is precisely the same emotional soil tilled by Wayne Wang's 1994 The Joy Luck Club, except the generations of women portrayed in that epic soap opera entertained far more serious personal issues than, "Gosh, he's cute, but is he really the one for me?" Beaten within an inch of their lives, persecuted by governments, torn apart by wars, their weary tales seemed repetitiously tear-jerking until the pampered viewer realized this was the autobiography of so many Asian women, battered down to a quiet stoicism that was the closest thing to heroism in a world of no choices.

By contrast, Winona Ryder's character in How To Make an American Quilt seems rather spoiled. She is the daughter of divorced parents (seen briefly in flashback), a young woman who has been forced--like many of the rest of us--into mapping out her life with an absence of strong examples. Yet she's hardly suffered from a dearth of opportunities. Unfortunately, the film takes her premature world-weariness for granted and never recounts for us hard details about her past. She is cast as the pliant student, the young woman awed by the funny and sad tales of her elders, and the gender restrictions of their eras seem totalitarian compared to the trifling ills she must encounter as part of her professional career.

Ryder is less an actress than a reactress, a beautiful young pro who earned a great deal of undeserved acclaim because of her role in last year's Little Women. Her angry encounter with the book-burning Kirsten Dunst in that film, as well as her hesitant romance with Gabriel Byrne, were melodramatic exercises in the same key, but An American Quilt requires even less of her, which is why she'll probably earn even more praise.

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