Patchwork saga

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

The film's most laudable contribution might be the resurrection of Ellen Burstyn's career. She is one of the subtler graduates of Lee Strasberg's legendary New York Actors Studio, and arguably the greatest film actress of the '70s (The King of Marvin Gardens, The Exorcist). Her own tale of romantic sorrow, which involves scenery-chewing sister Anne Bancroft, is one of the few that doesn't call upon a different actress to play her younger self. As the pot-smoking, adulterous Hy, Burstyn makes you yearn for a film dedicated just to her character.

For that matter, any of the fictional lives of the older characters would make a more compelling story than Ryder's rather conventional contemporary man-trouble. How To Make an American Quilt will be praised for its proliferation of post-menopausal women, but the old gals are really only instruments to allow us to appreciate the menu choices of a comely spring chicken.

Perhaps most annoying is how the film's clumsy title is so ill-served by the action, just as the graduate thesis of Ryder's character--the communal rituals of tribal women around the world--is a high-falutin' contrivance to enrich the theme of female solidarity and competition. There is never a convincing attempt to link either the small-town quilting bee or the occasional mention of multicultural female rituals, so the viewer can only chalk up their mention to an attempt by the filmmakers to flavor this one-dimensional saga with a multi-culti bite.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse made her cinematic debut three years ago with the hilarious Proof, a dark comedy from Australia that painted a vaguely homoerotic triangle of a blind photographer (Hugo Weaving), his sadistic maidservant (Genevieve Picot), and an outsider-rogue (Russell Crowe) who insinuates himself into their lives. It was a prickly, completely original drama of dependency, although it had little to do with "women's issues" and a whole lot to do with the stubborn craving in all of us for ego gratification. Although dominated by men, Proof had an anarchic view of relationships that suggested intelligent viewers of both genders would appreciate its nuances of character.

How To Make an American Quilt, however, is a purely commercial bid, a ploy to please the same audiences that turned Fried Green Tomatoes and the aforementioned Joy Luck Club into box-office hits. Moorhouse exhibits the same intuitive attention to visual detail that she did in Proof. Case in point--the flashback sequence in which Lois Smith's young counterpart, Samantha Mathis, falls in love with a boy who worships her swimming ability. Moorhouse photographs the pair of them through a woodsy trek, then strands the smitten boy until he ventures upon Mathis, standing at the edge of a rocky cliff over a creek. Moorhouse films her arms, then her legs, then her feet with veins bulging to be released, until the girl finally springs into the water.

The fact that Moorhouse chose How To Make an American Quilt as her next project suggests an honest desire on her part to delve deep into the experiences of women. Heaven knows that's something more Hollywood filmmakers should pursue. But Moorhouse seems to believe there's a certain emotional shading in relationship dramas to which women will respond. She's layered her film with pivotal moments in the lives of conscientious women and their faithless men. Now it's up to American movie audiences to sniff out the authentic bits from this slick concoction of pre-fab wisdom.

How To Make an American Quilt. Universal Pictures. Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft. Written by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Whitney Otto. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Opens October 6.

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